Steven Steinberg doesn’t want to be squished on his flight from Los Angeles to London. But he’s traveling on Norwegian Airlines, and some of their seats can cause … well, squishing.
The Boeing 787 he’s flying has a seat pitch (an approximate measure of legroom) of about 31 inches in economy class. That’s about four inches less than the coach class seats of a decade or two ago. Can you blame him for trying to buy more for an 11 ½-hour overnight flight? Neither can I.
So Steinberg paid extra for a bulkhead seat, which guarantees no one will recline into your space and offers a few extra inches of room for your legs. It’s about as close as you can get to having a premium seat without paying premium prices.
His experience makes me wonder if airlines haven’t taken their downsizing too far. I mean, 31 inches of pitch on an almost 12-hour flight. That can’t be comfortable. It may not even be safe.
You can probably guess what happened next. Steinberg lost his seat.
“Norwegian changed their plane from a 787-8 to the Dreamliner stretch version 787-9, with the result that my paid-for bulkhead seats were no longer bulkhead seats in the 787-9,” he says. “I only found out by accident when I happened to see how far I was from the bathroom. The website still showed that my seats were bulkhead; it was only when you went to actual seat assignment that you saw the real airplane layout. So now, I have paid for seat reservations for bulkhead seats and I no longer have bulkhead seats.”
I know that some airlines have re-seating algorithms, for when they change equipment, to ensure that everyone keeps their seat. But this looks like the airline tried to make Steinberg believe he had the same seat, when in fact, he didn’t.
“I would like the airline to put my wife and me both back into bulkhead seats, and not charge me more money beyond what I already paid before for prior bulkhead seats,” he says.
Sounds like a reasonable request, and our advocacy team is doing its best to help. But we’d like to do more than just fix Steinberg’s seat assignment.
I wonder why people like him are scrambling to escape from those small economy class seats, like rats fleeing a sinking ship? That’s the question the airline industry doesn’t want us to focus on — and if we do, they want us to think about it only like they do.
According to them, reduced-space seats are a symbol of the greatness of the free market. People asked for small seats when they demanded low fares. Some discount carriers are proud of their shrunken seats, viewing them as a win-win: They get more passengers on a plane, passengers get a deal.
So why, then, are passengers doing everything they can to escape these seats?
I think the airline narrative is fundamentally flawed on the issue of seat size. Customers don’t want to pay a lot of money for a product, but we see that in every industry. That doesn’t mean customers also asked for half a product, which is what 11 ½ hours in a 31-inch seat feels like.
People also want cheap cars, but do we allow vehicles to be sold without seatbelts and airbags? They want cheap food, but do we allow farmers to skip their agricultural inspections? Of course not.
Even if, for some reason, the government turned a blind eye to safety, a vast majority of customers would prefer to buy a car with seatbelts or hamburger without E. coli.
And that’s exactly what we’re seeing with people like Steinberg. He doesn’t want to be crushed by the passenger’s seat in front of him on his flight to London. Norwegian got it half-right; he wants a deal, but he doesn’t want to suffer.
I think the airline industry knows that. The herd moves toward the cheapest fares and away from the uncomfortable seats. As long as you’re there at the right time with a cash register, you can make a little money.
To me, that seems unethical. To some of you, that’s the free market at its best. Maybe this is something for the federal government to decide. Let’s hope it makes the right call.