Airlines Find New Ways To Torture Passengers With Economy Minus Seating

Everything is shrinking. Have you noticed? We can go from one side of the world to the other in an instant. Skype or email, you can reach anyone, anywhere with the click of a mouse or the tap of a keyboard. And it’s not limited to the virtual world. You can stick a pin in a map of any country and be there within hours. That is unprecedented in human history. But if you think this is a plug for the world’s major, or even minor, airlines think again.

It ain’t.

Airline travel has never been more affordable, more frequent, more readily available and more undesirable. Everything the world’s airlines do these days has, what I call, a perverse inversibility. The more they offer in travel destinations, the less you receive in customer service and creature comfort. Whoever said there’s no such thing as a free ride wasn’t kidding. Here are some examples. You think you’ve locked in the final price for your airfare, only to be told it’s going to cost extra should you want to choose your seat. From baggage fees to credit card surcharges, it’s just one more extra fee, airlines are slugging customers, to bring in an extra dollar.

Choosing your seat on a Qantas domestic flight is free, but you’ll get stung big time on their international routes. Selecting a general seat will cost you $25. And for extra legroom make that $60. Qantas does  allow you to avoid paying the fee by offering free seat selection within 24 hours of flying, that is, of course, if you don’t mind taking pot luck on where you’ll end up sitting. How generous? A Qantas spokesperson had the temerity to suggest that seat selection fees were designed to avoid passenger disappointment.

Yeah right.

But Qantas isn’t the only Australian carrier loading on the fees. Jetstar automatically charges for seat selection unless you choose not to pay. Its booking system starts off by adding $5 to your fare for allowing you to choose your seat. And if you want a seat closer to the front it will cost you $11 and then it jumps to $24 for an exit row seat.

Virgin’s fee structure offers extra legroom seating from $20 to $70 for domestic and short haul international flights and a whopping $150 for long haul international flights. And it’s happening all over the world. In the United States, Delta, American Airlines, and low-cost carriers US Airways, Frontier, Spirit and Allegiant have introduced charges for “preferred seating”. In Europe, British Airways charges a seat selection fee and budget carrier Ryanair offers specific seats for an extra cost, as does its low-cost rival EasyJet.

So you can imagine my shock, horror and dismay, did I mention shock? When I read that airlines are planning to introduce a whole new level of flight hell called ‘economy minus.’ If you thought there couldn’t be anything worse than cattle class think again. Plans are afoot to sky test a new, even more cramped section in economy class, according to leaks published on an aviation website.

The “enhanced economy” section would have a seat pitch, which is the distance between your seat and the seat in front of you, of approximately 35 to 38 inches (88.9 — 96.5 centimetres). Regular economy would have a pitch of 76 to 78.7cm and the new “economy minus” at under 76cm — but the exact size, meaning how small, is yet to be confirmed.

But many airlines have already reconfigured their economy sections into similar models, they’re just not letting the travelling public know about it. Numerous airline seats already fall under the 76cm mark. And, you might be surprised to know, that all these teensy seats go against recommendations from plane manufacturer Boeing, which released its “magic formula” for leg room in economy class in 2001. The formula, was hailed at the time as the ultimate guide for leg room. It was based on calculations of how many cubic centimetres of leg, rear, end and shoulder space it takes to create a “tolerable” experience for passengers. Boeing calculated it at 81 cm.

Essentially, what we’ve come to know as the premium offering of “economy plus,”which isn’t quite business class, but less of a squeeze, is really just the equivalent of the economy class section from years ago and we thought that was bad enough at the time. The airlines refuse to advertise the fact that seats are continuing to shrink, and the standard economy section we used to know will soon be just a memory. In fact, these days airlines are stealing space from economy passengers to make their premium flyers more comfortable. For example, last year, one airline reduced economy passenger space by an inch (2.5cm) per row in order to give their “economy plus” flyers extra room.

The airlines are being very quiet about it all, but passengers are noticing the difference. One airline passenger in the United States wrote about what she described as the space-stealing problem in a review of her United Airlines experience. This airline has already garnered a reputation for having an unofficial “economy minus” section with leg room of just 78cm on some of its planes — 16cm less than its premium passengers.

“We just ended a miserable flight, “ she wrote. “United’s ‘economy plus’ option, means that for a family not able to afford to upgrade, you are now put in the ‘economy minus’ seats — meaning the least leg room on any flight in living memory. It seems United gives the plus legroom to the economy plus, but then subtracts the legroom from the poor folks back in cattle class.”

Prepare yourself for the brave new world in airline travel.

Major airlines like Air New Zealand, Emirates, KLM and Air France managed to squeeze in a fourth seat in the middle of their Boeing 777 planes. And to add insult to injury they charge the same price as regular economy for a seat that’s narrower than most other airlines.

This is not good news in a world where people are getting bigger not smaller. Airline travel is fast becoming something to be endured rather than enjoyed.

To Recline Or Not

When I opened up the paper this morning I was struck by a question some people think is far more important than Russia or the Middle East. It’s a question occupying a lot of minds across the world. Apparently. I am sure you are busting to know what it is. Ok. Here it is: Should airline passengers travelling in cattle class be allowed to recline their seat?

This is a serious question. And it got pretty serious on August 24 during a flight from New Jersey to Denver. An argument over a reclining seat quickly escalated into an emergency diversion to Chicago and two passengers being escorted from the plane by police. In the days that followed, two other flights had to be diverted after violent arguments over the same issue. So no way was this was a one-off.

Here’s what went down. I should point out that this never happens in the pointy end of the plane. Wealth has its privileges. In this case plenty of legroom.

On this particular flight from New Jersey to Denver, one of the passengers has what some people might describe as a pathological obsession with people who exercise their right to recline their seat. I did say their right. Let’s set the record straight. Reclining your seat is not illegal or against airline policy. It’s not yet enshrined in the US constitution but I think you get the idea.

And here’s where everything started going pear-shaped. Once the plane reached cruising altitude this particular passenger who hates seat recliners undid his tray table, unpacked his laptop and then installed a device called a knee defender that physically prevents the passenger sitting in front of him, a woman, from reclining her seat.

Like I said airline passengers who recline their seats is this guy’s pet hate. The knee defender, by the way, was a Christmas present from his wife. Many airlines prohibit the use of the knee defender but the device itself is not illegal. And in its quaintly American way the knee defender comes with a courtesy card that tells the passenger trying to recline their seat that they have been blocked. Now this particular passenger has used this device many times but never gives out the courtesy card for two reasons. He doesn’t want a confrontation and secondly he uses what he thought was a foolproof solution. He installs the knee defender immediately after boarding the plane. The passenger in front tries reclining their seat a few times but gives up believing their seat is broken. It’s worked well in the past but, unfortunately for him, not on this occasion. What he didn’t count on was the woman sitting in front of him verbally complaining to the flight attendants that her seat appeared to be broken. Realizing the game was up the owner of the knee defender fessed up. The flight attendant asked him to remove it, which he did. That should have been the end of the story but it wasn’t.

The passenger in front of him clearly riled by what happened blasted the seat back sending his laptop flying no pun intended. That was a red rag to a bull. It was the turn of the passenger with the knee defender to complain to the flight attendants. But he was told the woman in front had every right to recline her seat and he would just have to accept it. I think it would be safe to say he didn’t take their advice very well. He pushed the woman’s seat forward and reinstalled the knee defender. Her response was to stand up in her seat and throw a cup of soda over him. A flight attendant stepped in and quickly moved the woman to another part of the aircraft before it got really ugly. In the meantime, news of this skirmish found its way to the cockpit and the Captain in the interests of public safety decided to make an emergency diversion to Chicago where police were waiting to escort both parties off the plane. Neither party is facing criminal or civil charges.

Apparently the inventor of the knee defender later waded into the debate accusing the airlines of wanting to wish the problem away. His solution is for airlines to redesign passengers seats so that they recline into a shell away from the passenger sitting behind or better still allow his device to be used. Of course he would say that.

The passenger who got kicked off this particular flight for using the knee defender flies more than 75,000 miles or 120 thousand kilometers a year so that might explain why he is a little sensitive over the issue of reclining seats. He later told reporters that he personally never reclines his seat. And while acknowledging the rights of the woman sitting in front of him to recline her seat he said it was just plain rude. He also said he was ashamed and embarrassed by what happened and admitted he could have handled it better. Really.

Now here’s my solution apart from banging some heads together. If you want to recline your seat, better still if you hate someone reclining their seat in front of you don’t complain. Put your money where your mouth is and cough up for business class. You’ll be doing everyone a favor.