American Airlines plans to cut the distance between seats by two inches, from 31 inches to 29, on a new fleet of aircraft that will go into use later this year, CNN says. The move will allow the airline to add more seats to new Boeing 737 Max airplanes on future routes in North America. CNN’s report also notes that by decreasing seat pitch, as its known, American could effectively set the new industry standard, just as it led the way on charging for baggage back in 2008. American did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.
“It’s like the entire message of yesterday’s hearing was lost on the airline industry,” Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) said Wednesday in a statement.
Cohen and Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), who introduced legislation that would establish minimum seat standards for comfort and safety, said the average distance between rows has declined from 35 inches in the 1970s to about 31 inches since deregulation of the industry. The average width has shrunk from 18 inches to 16 1/2 — which is even more astounding when you consider that the average American has expanded since then.
The news comes just a day after the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee called in United Airlines chief executive Oscar Munoz and other airline executives to discuss customer service after a United passenger was dragged from a plane last month to make room for crew members. Over and over, the executives defended their industry by saying that air travel has never been safer, customer satisfaction ratings are high, and overbooked planes, baggage fees and other controversial practices help to hold fares down.
And yet less than a day later, we learn that American Airlines will be shoehorning more seats into its Boeing 737 Max jetliners. United is supposedly thinking about doing the same to its passengers’ legroom, CNN says. The move would put them on a par with ultra-low cost carriers such as Spirit Airlines and Frontier Airlines, whose seats are 28 inches apart, CNN says.
The airlines said putting more people on planes helps explain why the average air fare decreased 8.5 percent to $349 in 2016, compared with $382 the previous year, after adjusting for inflation, according to the Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics. That was the lowest since 2009 and a drop of 12 percent from 2014.
But William J. McGee, an aviation expert who testified Tuesday before the panel on behalf of the Consumers Union, said one of the biggest complaints is that the airlines are cramming in more and more people to make a buck. His group and others, such as FlyersRights.org, have called on Congress to set minimum seat standards not just as a matter of customer comfort but because of health and safety concerns too.
Hours spent in cramped seating — especially in the dehydrating atmosphere of a plane cabin — can lead to the formation of dangerous blood clots in some people, a condition known as deep vein thrombosis, the consumer advocates say. What’s more, as planes become more crowded, the airlines are increasing the risk that people will be unable to get out of one during an emergency evacuation. In 2015, FlyersRights.org petitioned the FAA to create minimum standards and put a moratorium on reducing sizes further.
McGee also said all the talk of low fares should also be put in context. For one thing, those low fares don’t include things such as baggage fees and fees to change a booking. Some carriers even charge a fee for carry-on bags. In 2016, airlines hauled in $4.2 billion in baggage fees, or 2.5 percent of their revenues; they collected $2.9 billion in fees for changing reservations, or 1.7 percent of total operating revenue, the DOT reports. Plus, the way airlines price tickets can mean that while one passenger gets a great deal, another is getting gouged. He testified about a huge jump in the price of his ticket from Connecticut to Washington within a 7-hour period.
“Remember any time they talk about all-time low fares, what they’re talking about is averages. In this country right now, the differentiation between the highs and lows is so extreme,” McGee said. “It’s like saying that the first 20 customers that walk into the grocery store get milk for a $1 a gallon. And then everybody for the rest of the day that comes in gets milk for $10 a gallon. And then you put out a press release saying ‘Well, milk is at an all-time low.’ For every person who scores a $99 fare to Florida, there are an awful lot of people paying much, much more.”
And riding with their knees fused to the seat in front of them, too.