The uncomfortable truth about economy “comfort”

Think of it as a cross between musical chairs and a segment on the public radio show “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me!”: The gradual seat-shrinking, followed by a game where they see if we’re smart enough to figure out what they’re doing. Or if they’re lying.

I mention this because we recently heard from Glenn Leonard, who was trying to find a little comfort on an upcoming Delta Air Lines flight. And the airline seemed determined to deny him.

“We booked Comfort Class for our trip from Atlanta to Johannesburg,” he says. He and his wife, Mary, paid extra for a coveted bulkhead seat.

Then Delta had several equipment changes, which not only left the couple in lesser economy class seats (Economy Discomfort?) but separated the couple. It happened several times.

Oh, and they’re loyal frequent fliers. You’re welcome.

“They offered a full refund of our upgrade charge, which I now understand is required anyway,” he says. But in order to switch seats and sit together on the long flights, Delta is asking for another $250 – a “seat change” fee, he says. I’ve never heard of that, but at this point, nothing would surprise me.

The fix? After all the trouble of getting the premium seats, then losing them, then getting them back, and then losing them again, “We would appreciate a bump to business class either way — or both,” he says.

I think the Leonards are entitled to the seats they initially booked, and as loyal Delta customers, the airline should take care of them.

But a more interesting question is: How did we get here?

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It all depends on your perspective. Let’s start with the airline point of view. According to their narrative, the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 unshackled an overregulated industry, allowing it to offer the products air travelers really wanted.

And what did customers crave? Above all else, cheap seats. In order to offer those cheap seats, airlines began carefully and legally cutting their product, moving the seats closer together, unbundling their tickets, and consolidating.

And now we have the free market at its apex(or nadir): Three incredibly profitable legacy airlines and a marginally competitive industry. But hey — what’s good for airlines is good for passengers, right?

The consumer perspective is a little different, when it comes to seat size. The government’s deregulation of the airline industry was careless and hurt consumers. They see the pre-deregulation economy class seats as reasonable, with their 36 inches of pitch and 18 inches of width. They see what we have now — in some cases, seats approaching 28 inches of pitch — as inhumane.

Passengers never asked for unbundling or for the seats to be moved closer together. Are they price-sensitive? Sure, but airlines are hardly the only ones with bargain-conscious customers. That doesn’t automatically mean people want half a product.

Air travelers are also upset that even as their seats have become smaller, the total cost of travel, once you factor in all the fees and ancillary charges, has not fallen in tandem. In fact, fares are headed higher.

According to the passenger narrative, they are losing while the airlines are winning.

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All of which brings us back to Leonard and the fascinating nomenclature of post-deregulation economy class. He’s looking for a standard economy class seat, what Delta now calls “Economy+.” That’s an interesting choice of words. It implies the rest of economy class is minus.

Leonard is just looking for a little dignity on a 15 1/2-hour flight to South Africa. He would have had this dignity if he’d flown in economy class 30 years ago. No airline then would have imagined shrinking his seat pitch down to a knee-crushing 31 inches or less. Now he has to fight for one of the few seats that have a little more space.

And the thing is, Delta has him exactly where it wants him. He participates in its addictive, bait-and-switch loyalty program. He’s willing to pay more just to get a little basic comfort back. And Delta is behaving like a slavemaster. It’s jerking him around with excuses of equipment changes.

This, my friends, is exactly what’s wrong with air travel. Airlines managed to convince us we wanted these tiny seats and that being deregulated is wonderful for everyone. But passengers faced with spending half a day on a plane know better.

This isn’t the free market at its best. It’s the free market run amok.

When we have to beg an airline to treat us with respect, when we play its games and speak its dishonest language, we immerse ourselves into an artificial reality of half-truths and outright lies. No one except the airline’s avaricious shareholders wanted this. And no one deserves this.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at Read more of Christopher's articles here.

  • Brian Lesko

    You want business class seats? Pay for them!

  • Jeff W.

    I don’t think a bump in business class is fully warranted, but certainly help them get seats together and in economy comfort without having to pay extra. That is outrageous.

    Sometimes the airlines have to change aircraft. That happens and people might get shuffled around. But Delta should not be charging extra to make these people whole again.

  • Altosk

    Bump to business class, no.
    Get them the seats they were originally in or at least next to each other, yes.

    While you’re at it…how about reaching out to the 2016 Reality Show of Stupid (I mean the presidential campaigns) and find out the candidate’s stance on the way the airline industry…”does business.”

  • Hanope

    If the airline had to change planes, then the airline should seat passengers as they were originally (people together, same class of seats) without additional charges. The airlines caused the problem, they should solve it.

  • taxed2themax

    I agree that there should be no charge to be seated together due to a DL originated equipment change.. However, I think it is wholly outside of reasonable, to ask for, or even expect a bump to business from that…

  • Lindabator

    doesn’t work when they move from a 16 seat cabin to an 8 seat cabin, though, does it?

  • Lindabator

    I think the clients here misunderstood – there is no SEAT CHANGING fee — sounds like the seats together were in the exit row or preferred seats, which still carry a charge, and since they refund the total amount of the Economy Comfort, he needs to pay for those seat assignements


    Full disclosure to start–I am a Delta Platinum (though I fly a lot of non-Delta partners as well). Delta does not have a seat change fee. For anyone. Sounds to me like Delta had already refunded the original fee for the so-called Delta Comfort (I laugh at lot at this one) seating and they were simply having to pay for it again. Did he check his card statement to see if the refund had already been made for the seats that were taken away with the numerous equipment changes? Before accepting this case you should find out if and when he received that refund. Delta simply does not have a seat change fee (yet).

  • Kairho

    Delta only flies the 777 on that route and all aircraft are identically configured. So Hanope is correct, even if the planes were swapped.

    I’m actually dumbfounded that Delta would not make such a seating change, if able, without charge. My guess is the complainer never attempted the tried and true HUCA (hang up, call again). Worst case, they could swap at the gate or upon boarding; that happens a lot.

    As to getting upgraded to business. No way (unless for operational reasons and then there’s an elite pecking order, and regular members like the complainer seems to be don’t count). Not only will Delta not do that (they don’t even upgrade elites for free and will fly with empty seats in J if the need to), but such a piddling complaint is far from worth such a gesture.

  • 42NYC

    This is a misleading title. Certainly if you pay for Economy+ you shouldnt get moved back due to a change in plane. They should get that money refunded, be moved into the seat they requested or allowed to change flights.

    This article looks back on the ‘good ol days’ pre-regulation when airlines had 36″ of legroom, no bag fees, no standby fees, free meals, etc….. It fails to mention that flights were substantially more expensive than they are now.

    I was born post de-regulation. My parents talk about when they first were married in the mid 70s and moved to New York. They were able to fly back to Chicago once a year because tickets would regularly cost $500 (this is 1975 so with inflation thats got to be at least a grand, if not more). Meanwhile, I’m flying out to Chicago in a few weeks for $230. Would I like to have 36″ of legroom and a free checked bag and generally friendlier policies? Of course. Do I want to spend 4-5x as much as a result? Heck no.

  • Fishplate

    According to the U.S. Government’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, $500 in 1975 had the same buying power as $2203.63 today. That’s an expensive trip to Chicago.

  • 42NYC

    Even better. If my upcoming trip to Chicago was costing $2203.63 per ticket id either be driving or missing the wedding all together. I’m sure most would agree.

  • KarlaKatz

    I smelled the same rat in the woodpile. Delta was probably attempting to charge them for the original “upgraded” (that’s a laugh) “comfort” seats (double laugh). They had received a refund, bumped to the back, and were being re-seated in the upgraded zone. Business Class upgrade? Not deserved.

  • jim6555

    They paid for adjoining Economy Plus seats and all Delta has done is jerk him around. I say either give him and his wife adjoining seats in E Plus or upgrade them to Business Class. Delta accepted payment for the E Plus reservations and they have no right to demote him to Economy Minus.

  • jim6555

    One of them will probably tell you that he used to own an airline and knows more about the problems of airlines and passengers than anyone else alive. Another will say that airlines are greedy corporations just like the pharmaceutical companies and that we need to clamp down on the abuses of corporations. Beyond that, I don’t think that the other remaining candidates will comment on the airline industry at the risk of alienating possible corporate donors or consumers.

  • jim6555

    New York to Chicago in 1975 for $500 round trip? I don’t think so. In early 1978 (just before deregulation began) My wife and I flew round trip from Boston to Ft. Lauderdale for $312 each. Fares those days were based on distance flown and not factors such as time of day, day of the week, seasons or special events. One way distance from New York to Chicago is 761 miles, Boston to Ft. Lauderdale is 1238 miles. My guess is the cost of a round trip coach class ticket LGA to ORD in 1975 was about $200.

  • 42NYC

    I’ll forgive my 70 year old parents for not remembering the exact cost of a plane ticket 41 years ago.

    That said if it was $200 then it’s $1000 now. You can buy first class for less than that. I’d much rather pay $230 for cramped seats and fees for everything vs $1000 for a meal a free bag and six more inches of legroom

  • AirlineEmployee

    You buy an airline ticket today and you’re subject to punishment at your own expense. I’m waiting for the day when I buy store brands at the supermarket and because of that they’re going to put me on the longest check-out line that drags out into the parking lot.

  • cscasi

    Why did they move them from Economy Comfort if both aircraft, the original one and the equipment change one are both B-777L aircraft with the same configuration; ATL-JNB-ATL? Remember, Delta took them out of Economy Comfort and made them sit in regular economy. Why? There is something that is not right here. Either Delta messed up or Glenn Leonard does not have the story right. I would try believing the passenger but if Delta only flies B-777L’s on the ATL-JNB-ATL legs and they only have one configuration for that type, the seating should have remained the same – unless they flew a different model of aircraft that day (and there is no mention of that).

  • judyserienagy

    This is a perfect example of why airline fees need to be regulated. As you previously inquired “What is WRONG with these people?”. Airlines need to be required to take care of their customers, because they’re not able to figure it out on their own.

  • Altosk

    Trufax, bro. Trufax.
    I still maintain that politicians should be required to wear their sponsors like NASCAR drivers so we know who has bought whom.

  • BMG4ME

    There is no such thing as a seat change fee. Please don’t give Delta ideas for a new fee! As others suggested below, it was probably a fee for a better seat after having refunded the original fee and he should have known that having been prepared to pay for a better seat in the first place. Also when you say “How did we get here” deregulation is not how we got here. We got here because airlines feel it’s OK to change equipment at will without making the necessary arrangements to accommodate those that have selected upgraded seats. If we blame it on deregulation rather than the real cause, then we’ll never get the airlines to behave properly when it comes to equipment changes and seat assignments.

  • DChamp56

    I voted yes, but it has 0% to do with him being a frequent flyer. Everyone should be treated fairly.

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