Can you handle the truth about shrinking airline seats and baggage fees?


“I am so tired of consumer reporters complaining about the size of the seats on a plane,” an email from Nick Papamarcos, a 37-year United Airlines employee, said. “Even worse, reporters who should know better [than to] give the snarky response, saying no one has ever asked for those small seats.”

Papamarcos is one of several airline insiders who responded to my call for minimum seat standards. I don’t normally revisit a story for the sake of clearing up a few misconceptions, because if I did, I’d never have time to advocate for anyone.

But I’ll make an exception for this one. Why? Because the arguments presented by Papamarcos and others offer a glimpse behind the airline industry’s propaganda machine and the falsehoods it spreads.

So let’s get back to his problem with my story, which is that I said airline passengers never “asked” for smaller seats.

“Well, actually they have,” he claims. “Anyone who has watched the pricing for a seat in the past 30 years knows that when one airline raises the price of a ticket 10 bucks and the others stay the same, the one who raised the price will see an immediate and severe drop in sales. That’s called asking for a smaller seat.”

No, it’s not.

It is true that no one has ever said to me, “Chris, airline seats are too big. Why can’t we reduce the amount of legroom?” It is also true that everyone I know would like to fly free on their next vacation. That’s why loyalty programs are so popular — the same loyalty programs that account for a healthy part of United Airlines’ profits.

Papamarcos and other airline apologists seem to be arguing that our silence on the issue of legroom means they’re right. By continuing to fly, aren’t we endorsing smaller seats?

Because you demanded lower fares, and because you continue to fly, you approve of the smaller seats.


I would see it as more of a vindication of the airline position if actual travelers contacted me and said: “This is the way we wanted it. I am willing to give up essential seat comfort for a lower fare.” But the reaction to my story was just the opposite: there was a tidal wave of pent-up outrage from passengers who were tired of the mistreatment and being blamed for what happened.

But Papamarcos wasn’t done. Even though I had written my column about seats, he couldn’t help bringing up checked baggage fees, another source of United’s profits. He notes how tired he and his fellow employees are about customers “whining” about paying for bags.

“Fuel is the most expensive part of the cost of moving from one place to another,” he says. “Why should you, who travels light, pay for Ma and Pa Kettle who have four 50-pound bags. No thanks — I’ll pay for mine, you pay for yours.”

Again, there are several fallacies in logic and historical inaccuracies that make this kind of propaganda so dangerous and flawed.

American Airlines became the first network airline to charge for checked luggage in 2008. It blamed its actions on higher fuel costs. But it didn’t lower its fares by $15 across the board. Instead, it started collecting an extra $15 — and continued to do so even when fuel costs came back down.

When the other legacy airlines pulled a “me too” it wasn’t about giving people the “option” of paying less for their flight. It was about giving the airline the “option” of making more money from passengers. Because they, too, didn’t drop their fares by $15 overnight, nor did they bother eliminating the fees when fuel prices fell.

As for Papamarcos’ statement that you can pay for yours and he can pay for his — well, I checked the United Airlines employee website, and here’s what it had to say about baggage:

Under United’s Baggage Policy for Pass Travel, employees, retirees and their eligible pass riders are allowed to check two bags, up to a maximum of 70 pounds each, free of charge. All pass riders pay excess and overweight baggage fees, consistent with customers. United delivers lost and found checked baggage to employees, retirees and their eligible pass riders free of charge, provided the baggage was not checked in late or a change in itinerary occurred. Claims for lost baggage are handled the same as they are for customers.

In other words, I’ll continue enjoying my “free” checked bags; you can continue to fund my retirement, Ma and Pa Kettle.

I don’t have a problem with the airline industry practice called “unbundling.” But I do have problems with lying.

When the airline industry says we “asked” for smaller seats, it’s lying. We did not ask for little seats with no legroom. We asked for low fares. That’s not the same thing and it never will be.

When the airline industry says baggage fees are the result of higher energy costs, it’s lying. Higher energy costs were a smokescreen. Had they not been, then lower energy costs would have eliminated the fees. Instead, they increased over time. And if fares had truly been “unbundled,” then American, and all the airlines that followed, would have reduced their fares by $15 on the day they introduced fees for checked bags. They did not.

I can’t be too upset at Papamarcos for parroting the company line. From his perspective, the last few years have been anything but easy, and blaming the victim is one way to deal with the situation. I understand. But that doesn’t make his arguments credible.

Even Papamarcos seems to sense he’s on the losing side of this one. “The issue I wrote to you about is, to me, simple economics,” he said in a polite follow-up email. “Literally everything else with corporate airlines is incompetence.”

We are heading down a dangerous road. Competition is slowly being squeezed out of the U.S. airline industry. With rhetoric like this being used to justify terrible customer service, I fear the only way to address this problem is through government intervention. Time to write your elected representative.

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