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The Airlines Are Right: Flyers Are Idiots
Thursday, August 3, 2017 -- One thing I despise about talking to airline executives is their parrot-like recital of what I have long thought is the fundamental tenet of crappy carrier management.

Passengers have spoken with their wallets, they say with smug grins on their faces. Travelers want cheap fares, not comfortable seats. We're just giving flyers what they want.

I generally respond with my own well-honed tenet: Show me where travelers have ever affirmatively said they would accept narrower seats with knee-crunching legroom. You never asked them to weigh fares versus comfort. You're just assuming they won't notice that you've jammed them into smaller spaces. Besides, you haven't lowered the price people pay to fly, only lowered the "fare" and moved a huge chunk of the cost to fees.

Rolling of eyes--theirs and mine--invariably follows and the conversation inevitably deteriorates into alternate versions of travel realities.

I have indisputable proof of my latter contention since the most recent Transportation Department report reveals that "air fare" now covers less than three-quarters of the actual cost of flying. The airline industry's bait-and-switch--er, la carte--pricing strategy has unquestionably masked the actual cost of a ticket from Point A to Point B.

But the people-have-spoken-with-their-wallet thing? The "flyers would rather shave pennies off the price regardless of how many inches we shave off the seat" mantra? Turns out the world's airline executive are right and I am wrong.

Flyers are idiots. Apparently nothing would convince them to demand more comfort because all that most of them want is the chimera of a cheap price.

A Reuters/Ipsos poll released yesterday shows a vast majority of travelers won't even pay to get out of the middle seat. About 60 percent of people responding to questions between June 22 and June 29 said they wouldn't pay up to escape. Weirdly, as many as 13 percent didn't even know whether they'd pay more or accept the middle. And, no, there doesn't seem to be much gray area here. The margin of error--the "credibility interval" in new polling parlance--is just 2.4 percent.

The ultimate irony, of course, is that this devastating Reuters poll comes just days after a federal district judge in Washington dressed down the Federal Aviation Administration for ignoring basic physics.

"This is the Case of the Incredible Shrinking Airline Seat," wrote Justice Patricia Millett. "As many have no doubt noticed, aircraft seats and the spacing between them have been getting smaller and smaller, while American passengers have been growing in size."

Millett's snappily written opinion has generated worldwide attention and sloppy mainstream media types have hailed it as a big victory for travelers getting squashed into the new micro-sized slimline seats aboard aircraft that mainstream airlines are stuffing with additional chairs.

Millett's decision came down before the Reuters poll was released, however. We now know there's literally no need to make a federal case out of airline comfort. Passengers don't care about shrinking airline seats. They'll even happily sit in a middle seat if they are convinced they've saved a few pennies.

Besides, Millet's ruling has nothing at all to do with comfort. As I said on about a dozen radio programs this week, Millet was ruling on a (no pun intended) narrow legal issue: whether the FAA had sufficiently considered if less spacious airline seats impeded the safe evacuation of aircraft. Passenger comfort or flyer preference has nothing to do with what the court was considering.

Should you be too bored or too busy to read through the entire decision, let me summarize: Federal regulation requires all but the smallest commuter aircraft be evacuated in 90 seconds. As the justices pointed out, the FAA hasn't taken smaller seats into account--or even run real-life tests. The FAA now certifies tiny seats and stuffed-to-the-wings aircraft based on computer modeling. It wouldn't show its work or even adequately defend its certifications.

The justices were appalled and ordered the FAA to be more forthcoming in its testing, compliance certifications and public disclosures. But one thing the court did not do is require the FAA to retest anything and the court certainly did not demand the FAA require the airline industry to make seats more spacious.

And, you know what? Why does it matter? The American people have overwhelmingly decided price is all that matters. So what if the planes aren't up to regulatory snuff? So what if passengers may die the next time a plane needs to be evacuated?

So what if Irwin Mainway sells dangerous toys? As the unctuous Mainway reminded us on Saturday Night Live 40 years ago, his Bag O'Glass only costs $1.99. What do you expect for $1.99?

A nation full of Mainway toy buyers has decided that cheap is all that matters when it comes to airline seats. If they don't care if they're comfortable, why do you think they care if they're safe?


This column is Copyright 2017 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2017 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Joe Brancatelli. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.