Hiding Inflation: People Get Bigger, Airline Seats Get Narrower

Selling airline tickets to consumers whose real incomes have shriveled over the years is an art. There are people who don’t have to worry about the price, or maybe someone else is paying for it. They luxuriate in first class, and when ticket inflation sets in, they might not notice.

But others fight inflation by shopping for deals. They fly economy class and charge that ticket to their nearly maxed-out credit card and make payments on it at usurious interest rates for years to come. For these people, the airline industry has a special treat: squeezing their sides and stealing their elbow room. 

Already, airlines did away with free meals in economy class, and those people who used to gripe about crummy plane food now gripe about having to pay for it. Checked baggage costs an arm and a leg. There is a new fee for everything. Toilets are still free, but the idea of making a profit center out of them has already been kicked around. And so has the idea of doing away with them altogether to replace them with regular seats. All these methods have one goal: hiding ticket inflation.

Now there’s a new method, but unlike the toilet ideas, this one has taken off: after having reduced legroom to where it’s difficult for a normal guy to wedge his knees behind the seatback in front of him, airlines are cutting elbow room, shoulder room, and any air space between your hip and the armrest. United, American, Air Canada, Air France-KLM, Air New Zealand, Emirates…. they’re all doing it, according to the Wall Street Journal. They’re cutting the width of already tight seats in economy class so that they can cram an extra seat into each row. They’re taking a Boeing 777, for example, from nine seats per row to ten seats.

“You’d be nuts to do it any other way,” explained Emirates President Tim Clark.

In 2011, 15% of the 777s were delivered with 10 seats abreast. In 2012, it jumped to 70%. Other planes are being re-seated as well, even the 787 Dreamliner, though touted as a revolutionary plane that would dramatically improve passenger comfort (it’s actually more famous for electrical fires, pieces that fall off in midflight and leave a gaping hole in the fuselage, and similar hiccups). Of these marvels of technology and ingenuity, 90% were delivered with nine seats across, rather than the traditional eight.

Hip space of these new seats: 17 inches. That’s about two inches less than before. For the airlines, it’s 12.5% more passengers per row in the case of a Dreamliner. Are ticket prices getting slashed by 12.5% on these flights? No!

OK, we’ve been there before. Back in the early days of the jet age, the Boeing 707 was equipped with 17-inch seats. But that was when most people were more or less skinny. And when flying was a rare event. Today 69.2% of American adults are overweight or obese.

The finger pointing has already started: It’s the airlines’ fault, said Mike Bair, Senior Marketing VP at Boeing. Its designs are flexible. They allow airlines to do “whatever they want to do inside the cabin,” he said. Boeing designers work on mood lighting, bigger windows, and larger overhead bins, he said – “creature comforts that can’t be violated by the airlines.”

Airbus has publicly lashed out against the airlines’ squeeze tactics. In its ads, it’s hyping the width of its economy-class seats before airlines get a chance to trim them down. “Personal space isn’t any less personal on a 12-hour long-haul flight,” the ad muses.

Much like Boeing with its Dreamliner, Airbus introduced its superjumbo A380 as a plane that would offer new comforts to flyers. It would even have a bar. And the lower deck would be 12 inches wider than that of its nearest competitor, the Boeing 747, but would offer the same 10 seats per row, thus giving each passenger an extra inch. So what happened to that 19-inch hip space?

Emirates and other airlines are ordering the A380 with 11 seats abreast, chopping the hip space of each seat down to 17.2 inches. There are plenty of people whose ample flesh will bulge uneasily over the armrests into their neighbors’ airspace, or in case of ample neighbors, make solid body contact. Which may be OKish for short hops. But these planes are designed for intercontinental flights.

“We’ve tried it,” Emirates President Tim Clark points out. “It works.”

It “works” financially. Packing 12.5% more people into the economy class of a 787 is a CFO’s wildest dream come true. It increases available seat miles without increasing costs. It also opens up more room in business class or first class where the big moolah gets spent. And this is where inflation is tucked away, out of sight and out of reach from statistics because the worker bees who check prices don’t count the inches of hip space in a seat.

People in the upper income categories, those who don’t have to worry about the price of toilet paper, have seen their incomes rise over the years. The rest are in a downward spiral. The lower end got hit the hardest. For these folks, tissue makers have a special strategy: de-sheeting. Read….  The Exquisite Art Of Marketing To Pauperized Consumers.

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