Why Are Airline Lobbyists So Bad At Defending Airlines?

If you’re a PR flack for the airlines, maybe you’ve just given up? You figure anything you say is a lost cause, so why bother trying and just phone it in? Or maybe you’re trying to come up with gibberish statements, figuring the more of an anodyne non-sequitur you can offer, the less like you are to make someone mad?

I’m genuinely trying to figure out what was on the mind of the communications person for airline lobby shop Airlines For America when they offered this defense of current airline seat space standards to the Today show, “Airlines continue to invest in a wide range of innovative technologies to maximize personal space in the cabin.”

We all know that the ‘innovative technologies’ airlines have largely invested in have been slimline seats with less padding, which has helped them to squeeze more seats into the cabin at the expense of your back. But what strikes me is that the statement seems written by a bureaucrat, or a robot. I love the host in the background interrupting as the statement is read, reacting to these airline investments, “like what??”

If you’re going to defend the airlines, you need to go into this like Aaron Eckhart in the screen adaptation of Christopher Buckley’s Thank You For Smoking.

When you defend airline seats you need to make the positive case for airlines.

  • Air travel brings us all together. It is expensive and space is scarce. But you can be on the other side of the country in 5 hours – that is far more comfortable than a long Amtrak or Greyhound ride.

  • On the whole US airlines offer more legroom in coach than their counterparts in Europe. US consumers are getting a great deal, especially as inflation-adjusted airfares have been on a 45 year downward trajectory since the government stopped fixing prices to keep it expensive.

  • We all want as much as we can get for as little as possible. But you can choose to buy the product you want – whether it is 28 inches between seats on Frontier, 30-32 inches from most US airlines, extra legroom seats like exit rows or first class.

If the government mandates more room per passenger, and fewer seats, that just bans the Frontier Airlines business model. It does nothing to change the passenger experience on American, Delta, or United. But it does eliminate competition, and makes flying on American, Delta, and United more expensive for passengers.

Everyone loves a free upgrade, but when the government mandates the upgrade for everyone it’s no longer going to be free – it’s going to be expensive. Airlines are a low margin business. Warren Buffett famously said that investors would have been better off if someone had shot Orville Wright at Kitty Hawk. They’re not the ones who will be paying for this.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. On the other hand, this from the Avweb.com news site this morning:

    More than 26,000 people responded to the FAA’s request for comments on the ever diminishing airline seat and they were pretty much unanimous. In fact, at least 200 commenters described airline travel as “torture” because of the seats. From claimed injuries to class warfare to economic discrimination, the litany of horrors tied to seat dimensions was as acrimonious as it was comprehensive. That wasn’t actually the question, however.

    The agency’s stated purpose for the comment document was to determine at what dimension does a seat become an impediment to an emergency evacuation. Many of those who addressed that topic said the point has already passed. Some airlines have seat widths of 17 inches with pitches (the distance between the same point on seats in adjacent rows) down to 31 inches. Many respondents said unfolding themselves from the diminishing real estate they’re being assigned will slow their evacuation and reduce safety. Others said the cramped quarters were unhealthy, particularly for those with chronic medical issues. The agency hasn’t said what it’s going to do with the data.

  2. It’s election season. Let’s promise things we can’t deliver and break stuff in the process.

  3. The FAA is and can only be concerned about safety and yet the vast majority of responses = and I did read a bunch – are from the comfort standpoint.

    People have a choice to buy whatever amount of comfort they want. It really is not a difficult concept to understand. Since airlines are selling more and more premium seats than ever – rather than giving them away – people will spend for improved space.

    Even if the issue is solely about comfort, people can argue all day long about whether they prefer more legroom (pitch) or seat width but many comments complained about seat width.

    The width of commercial aircraft is set. The only way to increase seat width is to remove at least 16% of seats on the B737 or A320 family aircraft because both were designed to be 6 abreast in coach.

    And on widebody fleets, airlines including AA and UA have specifically chosen the “tighter” configuration for their B777 and B787 fleets while DL’s fleet offers wider coach seats both via the B767 and the Airbus family of widebodies.

    Yes, increasing seat pitch or width will increase cost/passenger. The FAA never asked how much more anyone would pay for the extra space they think they need.

    Americans are much larger than they were when the A320 was designed – and certainly in the 70 years since Boeing’s narrowbody fuselage.

    The A220 (nee Bombardier C Series) is the newest aircraft model in the industry and offers the widest seats in standard configuration – but the A220-300 is still smaller than the A320 family and B737 family aircraft.

    Given that Boeing just said it is a decade or more away from building a new narrowbody/small widebody and Airbus doesn’t seem to have anything on the table, the A220 is the best best for airlines that want it.
    Delta is the largest operator with Air Canada and JetBlue and a few other foreign airlines and some smaller airlines hot on their heels.

    For the rest, prove that the current size seats are a safety threat, lose weight, spend money on larger seats, or fly airlines that have the biggest seats by virtue of their aircraft types and configurations.

  4. @Tim Dunn

    You’re quite wrong. IRL people DON’T have a choice to buy whatever amount of comfort they want.

    I prefer 777 with 9 seats per row, but only those few lucky people who live in airports where Delta flies to their desired destination have such a “choice”, and the number is like <1% of Americans.

    Want to go to Finland? Delta won't take you there. Taipei? Nope. Live in San Francisco? Delta won't take you international longhaul nonstop ANYWHERE. And on and on and on.

  5. I dunno, Gary. Your argument that having minimum standards would destroy Frontier is pretty weak sauce. Did EC261 destroy European ULCC’s? That just set a minimum standard for consumer protection.

  6. The issue is people only buy airline tickets on price and not comfort. Pay peanuts, get a sardine can

  7. Jake,
    You can get a whole lot further on Delta metal to any of those countries in a higher level of comfort.
    Delta got rid of its 777 fleet with 9 abreast.
    Their international fleet is all B767s, A330s (-200, 300, and -900) and A350s.

  8. —all of which have more seat width than the 9 abreast 787s and 10 abreast 777 configurations in economy on AA and UA and many other global airlines.

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