The smallness of being in economy class

Americans are in the dumps about their future. What does that have to do with legroom in economy class? Everything.

The middle class sees its stature shrinking in the global pecking order and in a culture that favors money over well-being. There can be no better example for this than the indignities of flying economy.

Surely, you heard the story about the United Airlines flight from Newark to Denver that was diverted to Chicago after two passengers got into a fight over legroom.

A man had deployed a Knee Defender, an obnoxious device that prevents the seat in front from going back. Several airlines, United included, ban this contraption, but the man refused to remove it. The woman sitting in front of him then threw a cup of water at him. Both were thrown off the plane in Chicago.

In a more peaceful scenario, the man would have removed that stupid device when asked. The woman could have found her inner Zen voice telling her to move aside when someone acts like a jerk. Neither took the high road, so a planeload of passengers — most also scrunched into child-sized leg space — was greatly inconvenienced.

Surveyed air travelers say that crammed leg space bothers them more than the extra fees and delays, according to The Washington Post. So you’d think that our free enterprise system would offer roomier alternatives.

There are already market solutions, of a kind. Many airlines now sell enhanced space for, say, 30-odd bucks more. (That the combative passengers had both paid for extra square inches may have made them feel doubly aggrieved.)

But Wall Street rewards airlines that shoehorn the most passengers into the smallest areas. The industry calls this “densification.”

Sure enough, the average space between seats has fallen from around 34 inches before 2001 to about 31 inches now. Seats are themselves getting slimmer, and more are being tacked on to the rows.

A moment of respectful silence for flight attendants, please.

What can passengers do about this?

Ben Baldanza, the chief executive of no-frills Spirit Airlines, offers this blunt advice: “You don’t get a Mercedes S-Class for a Ford Fusion price. If you want more legroom, go pay for it at another airline.”

Fair enough. And stuffing people in has helped Spirit chalk the highest profit margins in the industry. Investors, meanwhile, have punished airlines that give more space, such as JetBlue.

So why aren’t the masses taking Baldanza’s advice and fleeing to his competitors?

The answer is that Americans have been trained to buy stuff on the basis of price only. Go ask for flight information on Expedia, a travel website. Up comes a list of options that one can sort by departure time, arrival time, duration or price. The default is “price.”

Nowhere are there data on breathing room or other niceties. Yet if personal space matters more to many travelers than the lowest price, why isn’t that information part of the sorting process?

Back in the “Mad Men” era, airlines bragged about their high level of service, from meals on trays to luxurious seating. Airline deregulation started the decline of such amenities. One of its goals was to encourage cheaper seats, and that it did.

But the shrinking of comfort levels accelerated decades later. It happened without a middle-class revolt, in part because our price-obsessed culture has dropped quality — whether for a sweater or for a flight to Hawaii — as a major factor in making a purchase.

No wonder ordinary Americans are feeling physically big and socially small in air travel. Fortunately, the solution is in their hands.

Froma Harrop is a Providence Journal columnist. She can be reached at fharrop@gmail.com.

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