Counter-Opinion: Why We Should Blame Airlines for Shrinking Seats

Overlooking the seat on the AA 737 MAX (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Daniel Morley)

Last month, my colleague wrote an opinion piece about why we shouldn’t blame airlines for the increasingly reduced seat sizes on planes. While he made some very good points, I have to disagree and take the side against the airlines for why we’re seeing legroom and seat pitch decrease seemingly every time we fly.

I have to preface my argument by saying that airlines have been slowly taking amenities away from passengers for years now. In my opinion, this debate started about 10 years ago when airlines started charging passengers for checked bags, a service that used to be free. The outrage and uproar over the decision slowly faded away, but we’re still reminded of it every time we fly. Except now, we’re used to it.

The charging of checked bags, while it may seem minuscule, started a downward spiral of ancillary fees, which airline’s today thrive on. Ancillary fees, the bonus money for major airlines and the lifeblood of ultra-low-cost airlines such as Spirit Airlines or Frontier Airline, are charged for so-called extras. This non-taxable revenue has become a way for airlines to pad their pockets under the guise of necessity.

Previously, the most egregious offender was US Airways, charging extra for “Preferred Seats.” These seats were billed as the most valuable seats on the plane. For US Airways to charge such a high fee for them, ranging from $7 to $100, they must have had extra legroom, premium amenities or even priority boarding, right? Wrong. The only thing premium about these seats was that they were in the first few rows. Nothing more.

American Airlines carried on this tradition post-merger, selling Preferred seats for high fees despite their only benefit being is that they’re close to the front. Again, these seats don’t even feature priority boarding. Delta Air Lines does this too. However, most of their preferred seats are exit rows featuring extra legroom.

In my opinion, any seat that you’re charging an additional premium for should come with extra benefits. People might get the opinion that they’re getting something extra just because the seat costs more. That was the tip of the iceberg, however. Now, you can’t get through a flight booking or check-in process without being solicited to purchase extras ranging from priority security screening to airline miles multipliers.

Following the charges for checked bags, preferred seats, and so on, airlines are now starting to take away the one thing that used to be held sacred, legroom. Some airlines have resisted the urge to downsize. Southwest Airlines and JetBlue Airways both have the largest legroom available, despite their status as low-cost airlines.

Typically, reducing an inch or so of legroom typically comes about from airlines wanting to maximize the capacity of their airplanes. When more rows are added, legroom is reduced. At most, airlines are gaining 2 rows, 12 seats, on their narrow-body aircraft. I posit the question: how much of a difference does this truly make?

With airline’s in the US making exorbitant profits, you’d think they wouldn’t have to resort to the nickel and diming schemes that are currently plaguing the airline industry today. But that’s exactly what’s going on.

I recently wrote an article commending ultra-low-cost carrier Frontier Airlines for their use of ancillary fees, you might say that makes me a hypocrite. However, at least Frontier Airlines doesn’t hide their status as an ultra-low-cost carrier. Major carriers such as American Airlines still try to pass themselves off as a respectable legacy with nickel and diming at every opportunity, something which I cannot abide.

While an extra row or two may bring in some extra profit on a flight, one wonders whether or not the airlines really need them. With Delta’s net income at over 4 billion dollars last year, and American’s over $2 billion, would it really kill them if they didn’t put in that extra row? Instead, wouldn’t passengers be more grateful to have the extra legroom?

My colleague suggests that it is partially our fault because we continue to fly these airlines. This, of course, is the key tenant of capitalism. However, we can’t always be picky about the airline’s we fly. I fly to Phoenix, Ariz. about 3 times a year to visit family. Often times, the direct flights are the cheapest. The three airlines that fly direct flights from New York are American, Delta and JetBlue. While I’d like to fly the others, American has a greater flight selection and sometimes I have to choose them.

Airlines are not burger joints. If one raises their prices and lowers their standards, you can’t walk across the street to the other one. Airlines are so few these days that often times you’re at their mercy and you can’t pick and choose based on your principles. Because of the seat sizes on American’s Boeing 737-800 aircraft, I avoid it like the plague. Unfortunately, though, that is a popular plane for American and can’t always be avoided, as was the case on a recent trip home from Phoenix.

In my humble opinion, I strongly feel as though airlines are doing fine and taking out the extra row would show that they care about their passengers and wouldn’t break the bank. While airlines are businesses that should be allowed to make decisions as they please, there need to be some limits to their madness.

As my colleague pointed out, Southwest Airlines and JetBlue Airways haven’t cut down on legroom. Those airlines also offer many amenities that major carriers don’t. Southwest offers free flight changes and two free checked bags, among others. JetBlue offers unlimited brand-name snacks and drinks and free in-flight wifi, among others. These are self-described low-cost airlines. Yet, they provide more than major legacy carriers do.

How does that make sense?

The main point here is not the legroom, it is the continuing downward slope that airlines are leading us through. If it was just the legroom, maybe it would be different. However, it’s the ancillary fees, it’s the charges for checked bags, it’s the basic economy fares where you don’t even get a carry-on with some airlines, it’s the not even getting a full soda can during drink service, it’s the being crammed like sardines, it’s the removing of humanity from air travel.

After all, travel is stressful enough as is. Passengers shouldn’t have to go through the entire airport experience just to finally get on the plane and be crammed into a seat that’s too small for them. If we let airline’s get away with this, who knows what they’ll take away next. We’ve already let them take away so much so we need to hold the line on this one. We deserve to be comfortable on our flights.

Thomas Pallini

Thomas Pallini

Tom has been flying for as long as he can remember. His first flight memory was on a Song Airlines 757 flying from LaGuardia to Orlando. Back then, he was afraid to fly because he thought you needed to jump off the plane in order to get off. Some years later, Tom is now a seasoned traveler, often flying to places just for the fun of it. Most of the time, he'll never leave the airport on his trips. If he's not at home or at work as a Line Service Technician at Long Island MacArthur Airport, he's off flying somewhere, but only for the day.
Thomas Pallini
  • Dale Parkes

    I would go back further to when airlines eliminated complimentary meals in coach and started buy on board back around 2004 or thereabouts. Southwest and Jet Blue never had complimentary meals though Jet Blue had (and may still have) the best in cabin product for economy class for any airline in North America.

    If Southwest starts charging for first or second checked bag I would be all in for re-regulation and either a ban on the ancillary fees or reworking the taxation system regarding airlines in order to strongly discourage ancillary fees.