Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Pack'em in Airline Seating

I made a comment a while back about the cattle car coach seating in today’s air travel.  Several responded by asking if the planes are full, which they are, and then pointed out that the public desires cheap airfares and willingly sits in uncomfortable conditions, so what’s the problem?  Others observed that airlines are finally turning profits that can come only from packing as many people into as small a space as possible, so what’s the problem?

I wonder if the reported increase in disruptive, sometimes violent passenger behavior might be a symptom of a problem, or maybe problems.  I can’t find any comprehensive data on disruptive passengers, but then I haven’t looked very hard either.  However, I did stumble on a study of Canadian domestic airlines that showed a steady rate of about twenty incidents per year until 2008 when the numbers lurched into a rate of around one hundred per year.  That’s a big jump in a short time.  I wonder if U.S. airlines would report something similar.

Airline representatives blame disruptive behavior mostly on alcohol and drugs, so I guess 2008 must have been a year in which alcohol and drug use exploded among airline passengers.  Could be, but I suggest another cause, and that is the inhuman conditions of passenger comfort that create tipping points for the increase in disruptive behavior.  I understand that people willingly submit themselves to those conditions because, if they want to fly somewhere, they have no choice.  The same might be said for steerage on the old transatlantic ocean liners.  That doesn’t make the conditions any less uncomfortable, painful, intrusive, stressful, and ripe for defensive and offensive disruptive behavior.  Let’s put it this way, we are painfully aware that overcrowding prisons creates conditions in which violent behavior is likely.  Overcrowding airplanes does the same.  It’s a confined, regimented environment from which there is no escape.  The preflight briefing makes it clear that flight attendants are in charge and must be obeyed.  Fellow passengers are harried, nervous, doing what they can to preserve the sanctity of what small private space they can acquire, and ready to take offense.  

Drugs and alcohol may contribute to the situation, but the conditions themselves are designed to encourage disruptive passenger behavior.  I’m surprised that we don’t hear more stories than we already do.  

I imagine that behavioral psychologists can pinpoint the smallest amount of space an average person can tolerate for how long, and that calculation has something to do with how airlines design seating configurations.  Add to that some enticing advertising luring people to exotic places for what appears to be a reasonable price, and the result is a well orchestrated campaign to pack’em in, tell'em they’re having a good time, and send'em home tired, frustrated, and broke knowing that they can be seduced again next year. 

I imagine that those same psychologists can also identify an amount of space needed for a range of persons to be reasonably content for some period of time.  Maybe that amount of space would reduce airline seating and require an increase in fares to compensate, but my guess is that it would not make much of a change, if any, in profitability.  True, some people who might otherwise fly somewhere would stay home or find another mode of transportation.  A few of my respondents called that elitist, arguing that the pack’em in like sardines schemes provide worthy benefits to the masses.  That doesn’t smell right.  It smacks too much of a lack of respect for the dignity of ordinary people and deliberate psychological abuse in defense of profit. 


So, what do you think?

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