Why Do Airlines Continue to Shrink Seats?

Airlines are shrinking economy class seats again, and they’ll achieve some efficiencies by doing so. But let’s not forget another key reason why the back of the plane becomes ever more like a cattleyard as the front transmogrifies into a luxury hotel:

It is not because of the few thousand francs which would have to be spent to put a roof over the third-class carriages or to upholster the third-class seats that some company or other has open carriages with wooden benches . . . . What the company is trying to do is to prevent the passengers who can pay the second-class fare from travelling third class; it hits the poor, not because it wants to hurt them, but to frighten the rich . . . . And it is again for the same reason that the companies, having proved almost cruel to third-class passengers and mean to the second-class ones, become lavish in dealing with first-class passengers. Having refused the poor what is necessary, they give the rich what is superfluous.

Something for first-class passengers to chew on as they retire to their aerial suites.

Frank Pasquale

Frank is Professor of Law at the University of Maryland. His research agenda focuses on challenges posed to information law by rapidly changing technology, particularly in the health care, internet, and finance industries.

Frank accepts comments via email, at pasqresearch@gmail.com. All comments emailed to pasqresearch@gmail.com may be posted here (in whole or in part), with or without attribution, either as "Dissents of the Day" or as parts of follow-up post(s). Please indicate in your comment whether or not you would like attribution, or would prefer your comment (if it is selected for posting) to be anonymous.

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20 Responses

  1. David Bernstein says:

    You do realize that (a) the vast majority of flights are domestic; (b) domestic first class is far from lavish; and (c) most people flying domestic first-class are not “rich,” but are frequent flyers, and are in first class to reward their loyalty to the company they fly often, not because they paid the full fare. Right? The reason coach stinks is because time and time again, consumers have shown that they want the cheapest airfare possible, and won’t pay for amenities. Every time an airline has tried more legroom and other ways of trying to lure coach passengers, the passengers just go to the cheaper competitor.

  2. CHS says:

    Don’t know about “c”. People who fly enough to be in first class may not always be rich, but some rich-ish entity is paying for or subsidizing them. I fly every week, and the folks I see in first class, judging by their clothing, accessories, and other indicia, seem pretty well off.

  3. David Bernstein says:

    You’re not getting it. For the most part, these are not people who are on tickets for the first-class fare. They are mostly business travelers who have enough miles to get status and thus upgrades. No doubt they are better-off financially than average, but then so is Frank Pasquale. But there’s nothing much to envy about people who have to fly so much on business that they accrue 50k miles or whatnot to get Gold status and upgrades, just because they get a somewhat larger seat and a free drink.

  4. CHS says:

    I do get it. I am one of those people. We can quibble about rich. But people who maintain enough miles to fly first class are, in the main, better off than people of average income. I leave it to others to judge who is a suitable object of envy.

  5. CHS says:

    Companies pay to have their employees go business and first class so they won’t be wrecks when they arrive at their destinations and because those classes ease the difficulty of frequent flying. If coach were decent, the companies would put employees there. Whether they (we) are paying out of pocket or not, they (we) are a privileged class.

  6. Frank says:

    DB: The more egalitarian model is JetBlue, which is the airline I almost always fly. There the “Even More Legroom” seats accommodate tall people, and can do so in part because the planes are not using space for a “super luxury” section replete with huge seats, giant arm rests, and space for plates of warm cookies. Moreover, the whole plane gets about 34 inches of seat pitch, vs the incredibly small 31 or 30 inch seat pitch that the “plebes” are pressed into to make room for the “patricians” of the sky in other airlines.

    I pay $20 to $60 more per flight for the “Even More Legroom” seats, not the $500 to $1,000 or so premium I often see quoted for domestic First Class. And I imagine I’d have far more opportunities to fly if more airlines took the JetBlue model, rather than the “pamper the top, devil take the hindmost” model described above.

    And here are some great insights on airline deregulation I’m sure you’ll appreciate:
    http://lbo-news.com/2012/06/04/airline-dereg-more-a-failure-than-matt-yglesias-says/

    CHS: Agreed.

  7. Orin Kerr says:

    Economy seating is perfectly adequate and comfortable for most people, so it seems sensible that airlines would design their seating layout that way. But then “most people” are about a foot shorter than Frank, so perhaps his experience is different than ours.

    In any event, based on the story it sounds like the airlines are shrinking seats in the sense that the seats themselves will be less thick and will weigh less. That saves space and fuel, which seems unobjectionable.

  8. Lawrence Cunningham says:

    I commute NYC-DC weekly and in many semesters over the years, including this one, US Air’s First Class seats have cost less than coach there or coach on the Delta shuttle.

    Despite the lower price and supposed fancy allure of First Class, I prefer Delta shuttle’s coach for other reasons: their NYC terminal is separate and less crowded and fellow passengers are mostly experienced regular business travelers like me, usually in a hurry, not inexperienced leisure travelers prone to causing unnecessary delays.

    The airline industry is complex. It is a terrible business from an economic perspective. Even so, the choices are surprisingly many, not only among airlines but with buses, cars, trains, and vessels. (And, for the ultra-rich, such as Warren Buffett, Al Gore, or Hank Greenberg, ownership or fractional interests in private jets, for whom commercial, first class or otherwise, is totally unacceptable.)

  9. TJ says:

    Frank, I think you are shifting your theory a little here. If your point is only that airlines are inegalitarian in the sense that they treat First class passengers much better than Coach passengers, then that is self-evidently true. I took your claim instead to be something much more sinister, which is that airlines treat Coach passengers badly not because that makes economic sense as a matter of the Coach product standing alone, but *because* they have a First class and want to prevent substitution in the form of people who could afford First class buying Coach tickets. If that is your claim, then I find that incredibly implausible. First, airlines are losing money hand over fist, so it seems a perfectly adequate explanation that they treat Coach passengers badly simply because they can’t afford to do any better given what Coach passengers pay; your insinuation of an additional sinister motive seems to violate Occam’s razor. Second, the particular theory that you seem to suggest–that treating Coach class passengers badly leads to more First class sales–seems (at least by my anecdotal experience) to be weak, since most people in First class seem to be there on FF miles, and virtually everyone I know could afford First class tickets but generally choose to fly Coach. If airlines are in fact motivated to treat Coach class passengers badly not due to lack of money but due to a desire to encourage more First class sales, that strategy seems to be a spectacular failure.

    Perhaps your point about Jetblue is to use it as an example of how airlines might treat Coach class passengers better if they didn’t have a First class product. But I don’t think you can tell a causation story here: Southwest has no First class, either, but its legroom in Coach is not substantially better than other airlines. And lets not even get started about Ryanair–airlines that treat coach passengers the absolute worst generally have no First class.

    Finally, the link you provide about deregulation seems mystifying to me. If one thinks that the general problem in the economy is corporations fleecing consumers, or rising inequality from an increasing share of national income going to corporate profits, then the airline industry post-deregulation is about as close to a counter-story as one can imagine. Whatever the problems with our air travel system, it is most certainly not because the airlines are making huge profits from fleecing consumers.

  10. David Bernstein says:

    BTW, if you fly United, you can pay somewhere between $9 and $119 for “economy plus” seats with much more legroom. In my experience, though, few people are actually willing to pay for these, and they instead mostly go to frequent flyers and airline employees.

  11. David Bernstein says:

    Oh, and JetBlue is adding first class seats and shrinking legroom in coach. http://gothamist.com/2013/08/06/jetblue_shrinks_coach_legroom_to_ad.php I’m guessing that “how egalitarian is it?” isn’t a big consideration in most people’s choice of airlines.

  12. Frank Pasquale says:

    DB, as part of some research I did this summer, I’m sad to report to you that United Economy Plus in their Embraers is 34 inches. That’s not enough for many tall people. The extra legroom also does nothing for the obese who are disadvantaged by current arrangement. While I guess I can be dismissed as a freakishly tall outlier, a very high percentage of the US population is heavy and very uncomfortable in the seats.

    As James Atlas puts it: ” While our seat width contracts — on some airlines by nearly eight inches in recent years — the space up front continues to expand: Emirates Airlines now offers, as part of its “first-class private suite,” a private room with minibar, wide-screen TV and “lie-flat bed.””
    at
    http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/07/06/class-struggle-in-the-sky/?_r=0

    And thank you for the JetBlue point–another demonstration of just how much pressure inequality is putting on some of the few remaining amenities of the 99%.

  13. David Bernstein says:

    Once you’re talking about cross-ocean international travel, you are already talking primarily about if not the 1%, the 5%. Why waste your egalitarianism on the family that “had to” travel in coach on their vacation to London, Sydney, or Nepal?

  14. TJ says:

    Frank,

    I’m still having trouble understanding what your thesis is. Is it (1) that airlines are inegalitarian or (2) that they provide a terrible product? Both are true at least on mainstream airlines, but they are not the same claim and are not individually true on all airlines, and have different causation. Ryanair is extremely egalitarian, where everyone gets equally bad service. Singapore airlines has pretty great service even in economy, but really pampers its First class.

    On causation, if your complaint is simply about terrible service and amenities, then I think it is a perfectly adequate explanation that airlines seek to maximize profits and therefore cut amenities wherever it is economically rational to do so. If your complaint is inequality, then pampering First class is less a cause of this inequality then a reflection of it.

    At the end of the day, I’m getting the impression that what you really want to have is some government regulation that forbids first class while mandating that airlines provide at least 36 inches of legroom in economy (and why not all the other amenities of air suites while we are at it?). But all re-regulation will do is take air travel back to the day where it was the province of the wealthy. So instead of poor people in coach and wealthy people in first class, it will be poor people in literal coaches on the ground and wealthy people in their air suites. Putting inequality out of one’s eyes will hardly make it disappear.

  15. Matt says:

    For what it’s worth, I’ve experienced some of the “slim” seats (on a flight in Europe on Lufthansa, on a newish Airbus) and found them generally more comfortable than the older, bulkier seats. So, whatever else we may fear here, the seats themselves are nothing to worry about, I’d claim.

  16. AndyK says:

    To defend the OP, it’s certainly plausible that you invent a lower class of service to encourage consumers to pay more for the average class of service. That’s just basic microeconomics and marketing.

    If the OP means to suggest that this is the ONLY thing going on, or if any critic wishes to suggest that the ONLY thing going on is that folks want rock-bottom pricing—- they are sorely mistaken. Obvioulsy there are multiple balls in the air, economically, and it’s best not to discount anything.

    And this sort of expressive, signal-pricing is entirely “rational” because it capitalizes on the psychological reactions of a target market quite cleanly.

  17. AndyK says:

    Certainly air tickets are far less expensive than they have been, historically. http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2013/02/how-airline-ticket-prices-fell-50-in-30-years-and-why-nobody-noticed/273506/

    The broader US market trend is towards disaggregating services, including service quality, so that folks can pay less to get less and be treated better or worse. Airlines are no exception. Folks on the left need to realize that many fees (such as baggage fees) represent the flip side of the pricing coin that allows low-income travellers in the first place.

    And folks on the right need to realize that terrible service isn’t necessarily a monopolization problem, but again, the flip side of the pricing coin. You pay less now and don’t just get less legroom, you also get below “minimal courtesy levels.” Because minimal courtesy has costs associated with it, and it’s just a bourgeois hang-up that folks think they “deserve” politesse, refunds, or less than 60 minutes on the phone.

  18. David Bernstein says:

    AndyK, one reason you get less than stellar service on airlines is that (a) there is no way for airlines to know which flight attendants are great, and which are just okay; and (b) if there was such a way, it wouldn’t matter, because union contracts require lockstep compensation.

  19. John says:

    Given that all you frequent flyers are destroying the planet, I’m not so sympathetic to your in-flight discomfort.

  20. Sykes Five says:

    I think the service complained of above is not simply in-flight service but rather the rest of it, such as call center, departure check-in, and gate. Not all of the personnel involved are protected by union contracts.

    My general rule is to delay any customer service need until the last possible opportunity because the quality of service increases the closer you get to the plane. The closer you are to the plane, the better the chance that someone will actually resolve the issue in a way that makes you happy rather than say no, demand a service fee, or delay.

    The “close to the plane” rule also happens to increase the likelihood that you will be dealing with a unionized professional who won’t be fired for doing the right thing rather than a scared drone.