A s the vacation season fades into fall, travelers have wended their weary way home from far-flung destinations such as Hawaii, Queensland, Europe and beyond. The problem is, the farther-flung the destination, the wearier the returnees are likely to be — and the angrier. Not because they didn’t enjoy their August break at a nice, sunny beach or in some exotic foreign city, but because most of them had to endure discomfort and indignity getting there and back. It has been said before, but it bears repeating until there is some breakthrough on the subject: The current state of long-distance, economy-class travel is a disgrace to the airline industry.
Who besides the fortunate regulars in first or business class hasn’t suffered? The litany of woes is numbingly familiar. Too few toilets. Scratchy blankets. Hard, narrow seats apparently designed to ensure that a passenger’s head tips ever-so-slightly forward, thereby guaranteeing a crick. Armrests just wide enough for one normal-size arm, thereby guaranteeing that passengers will spend the flight bumping one another’s elbows — and getting increasingly irritated in the process.
But all that pales in comparison to the real killer: legroom, or the lack of it. Riding in coach, you wonder if the airlines have ever heard of the concept. Here, for their benefit, is the dictionary definition: room in which to stretch the legs while seated. The ultimate irony is the playing of videos in which smiling models demonstrate foot-and-leg exercises designed to prevent blood clots — modest drills such as rotating the foot or raising and lowering the leg a few centimeters. As every economy-class passenger knows, it is impossible to do those things in airline seats as they are currently configured and under which “extra” carry-on luggage has obediently been “stowed.”
As for other luxuries such as reading or getting up to go for a walk (also recommended by health experts), economy-class passengers know better than to try. Once the fellow in front reclines his seat, many over age 40 can no longer hold his book or newspaper far enough away to focus. And getting out of the window seat requires literally climbing on the armrests, stepping on one’s seatmate’s fingers as one teeters in midair. The seatmates of course cannot stand up to make room because they are jammed in so tightly themselves they cannot move, and in any case the aisle is full of trolleys. The ensuing discomfort and humiliation is especially hard on older passengers, who may be both less nimble and more in need of bathroom breaks than they used to be.
It is true that some airlines lately have been touting extra legroom — or as they call it, “pitch” — the distance from any point on one seat to the same point on a seat in front of or behind it — in coach class. But they are talking about a couple of centimeters at most. The industry average for pitch in economy-class seating hovers around 80 cm. Business- and first-class pitch varies more, but business-class passengers get around 150 cm, while the toffs in first class loll about with 200. Yes, we know that they (or their companies) pay ridiculous prices for their spacious seats, and they don’t arrive at their destinations any faster, either. But that is hardly the point.
The point is that asking people to sit for eight, 10 or even 12 hours in a space so small that even a short person’s knees are touching the seatback in front of him is inhumane — and that is what happens with 80-cm pitch. It is not even a remotely adequate space in which to travel, unless the airlines think they are transporting chickens rather than human beings.
None of these complaints is new. But none has been addressed by the airlines, either, so it really is up to long-suffering passengers to protest and resist. As the airlines well know, people are unlikely to refuse to fly — although some will. Most of us have no choice if we want to travel anywhere. But people can refuse to cave into pressure from the airlines and cough up for business-class seats.
And they can protest: by e-mailing, writing letters or calling to register complaints, and by supporting those airlines that make any kind of effort to better the lot of people in their biggest sections, the backbone of customer patronage. Numerous Web sites keep track of such information.
We are well aware of the industry’s standard response to such complaints: It is all a matter of costs. Global fuel prices are rising, and the industry as a whole is reeling. Flying full — and ever fuller — planes is the only way to stay alive.
The response to that is simple: Treating paying passengers like pieces of baggage is not and cannot be the only way. Do the right thing and figure out a better way.
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