Why airlines are hiking fares and squeezing out passengers

The pitch in many budget airlines has dropped to below 30 inches (as low as 28 on some) and the seat width to below 18 inches – 17 inches in some case

By Chidanand Rajghatta

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Published: Wed 24 Aug 2022, 9:35 PM

Last updated: Thu 25 Aug 2022, 6:26 PM

Unless you've been living under a rock or in a cave, you would have noticed air fares across the world have been going up, up, and away. This is particularly true in the US market where tickets on some domestic routes cost more than flying halfway across the world. Gone are the days where one could fly coast-to-coast for less than the cab fare from home to airport, as happened once to your columnist, who paid $69 for a one-way Washington DC to Seattle ticket (cab fare home was $70). Although the airlines that offered the low fare sank without a trace, it was instructive for others to wise up. Airlines are now making up for lost time and revenue with a slightly more rational approach, although fuel cost and "revenge travel" spurred by receding Covid fears are among immediate reasons being cited for the high prices.

For the longest time though, it was an enduring mystery how airlines managed to keep fares low, or at the same level, across decades. For instance, it cost approximately $1,000 for a US-India economy round ticket back in the 1990s. Fast forward 30 years and it's not very different. In fact, you can get an off-season round ticket for as low as $800 although peak holiday fares can go up to $2,500.

Outside of the mysterious algorithms that drive pricing that only airline insiders know, greater efficiencies are often attributed to explain low costs. Airplanes are lighter and more efficient, and some airlines are even more disciplined. Have you noticed by the way that often the person who checks you in at the front counter also circles around to board you at the aerobridge? Apparently, it is taking fewer and fewer people to get an airplane off the ground today than it did say 25-30 years ago because airline personnel are called to do more -- for less. Much of the glamor has dissipated for pilots and flight crew and the lolly does not match the allure.

The big elephant in the room that few airlines talk about is the shrinking of seat sizes and leg space to accommodate more in an airplane. Go back half a century or so and you will find seats in airplanes were as wide as 22-24 inches with legroom or “pitch” – the distance between the back of one seat and the back of the next – of up to 35 inches. Today, there is barely any wiggle room. The pitch in many budget airlines has dropped to below 30 inches (as low as 28 on some) and the seat width to below 18 inches – 17 inches in some cases. The squeeze is on.

Meanwhile, studies have shown that people, particularly in America, are getting bigger, larger, wider, and heavier. Apparently, since the late 1980s, the average American man over age 20 has gained about 15 pounds and his waist size has increased by more than 2 inches. The average American woman has gained about 16 pounds and increased her waist size by more than 3 inches. People also take more “stuff” on board, including heavier carry-on luggage, to avoid checked-in baggage fees – another source of revenue for airlines.

All this has spurred some consumer advocates to agitate for regulations to mandate adequate space. Loosely regulated currently, the main protocol that drives body space issues today is safety. Airlines can cram in as many seats they want in an airplane as long as passengers can evacuate in an emergency within 90 seconds, and airline honchos say that standard is being comfortably met. Not so fast say consumer advocates, who have found support from cabin crew groups whose members have to squeeze their way around and manage the fall-out.

So the US Department of Transportation has now invited feedback from the public to possibly initiate regulations to better manage space issues, and it is being inundated with comments from people who have felt the squeeze. The airlines, on their part, have their answer ready: If you are a large, economy-sized person, buy an extra seat – or buy a business class ticket. Some airlines already have protocols in place for this: if you cannot lower both armrests after you are seated, or if your body extends more than one inch past the armrest and you are bumping into your neighbor in the next seat, you will have to buy an extra seat. One airline has gone even further, allowing two large, heavy people to team up and buy one seat between them, although when and where this transaction can take place is not clear. All this is, of course, inevitably leading to the day when we may have to pay by weight and size to fly – a gift for small-bodied, lean, and fit people. For those who are built on the lines of wide-bodied plane, or acquired such width, it sadly will be a fat accompli.

- The writer is a senior journalist based in Washington

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