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

Shutterstock

“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.

Nonsense.

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.

Who is right?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...

Underwritten by

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by AirportParkingReservations.com

With nearly 20 years in the industry, over 128 airport covered in the U.S. and Canada, and over 1,000 Hotel and Parking Partners-we provide travelers the best options on how to get to the airport when flying. Whether you want to; drive yourself and park near an Airport (Airport Parking), stay the night before your flight at an airport hotel and leave your car (Hotel and Parking Package), or take a shared Shuttle/Private Car/Limo to the Airport- we got you covered. The best deals can be found online, and booking a reservation has never been easier. You can explore all of our options by visiting us at AirportParkingReservations.com, ParkSleepFly.com, AirportParking.com, and ShuttleFinder.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Cavalry Travel Insurance

Cavalry takes the worry of out travel by providing 24/7 access to medical and security professionals combined with the best medical evacuation and security extraction services. Cavalry gets you home safely when you need it most. Learn more at Cavalrytravelinsurance.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Seven Corners

Seven Corners has helped customers all over the world with travel difficulties, big and small. As one of the few remaining privately owned travel insurance companies, Seven Corners provides insurance plans and 24/7 travel assistance services to more than a million people each year. Because we’re privately held, we can focus on the customer without the constraints that larger companies have. Visit Seven Corners to learn more.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Sodexo North America

Sodexo North America Sodexo North America is part of a global, Fortune 500 company with a presence in 80 countries. Sodexo is a leading provider of integrated food, facilities management and other services that enhance organizational performance, contribute to local communities and improve quality of life for millions of customers in corporate, education, healthcare, senior living, sports and leisure, government and other environments daily. Learn more at Sodexoinsights.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travelex Insurance Services

Travelex Insurance Services is a leading travel insurance provider in the United States with over 55 years combined industry expertise of helping people dream, explore and travel with confidence. We offer comprehensive travel insurance plans with optional upgrades allowing travelers to customize the plans to fit their needs. Compare plans, get a quote and buy online at Travelexinsurance.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by AirHelp

AirHelp is the world’s leading flight delays compensation company, helping passengers apply for compensation following a delayed or canceled flight or when boarding has been denied. It is AirHelp’s mission to fight for passenger rights by holding airlines accountable for flights disruptions that are out of passengers’ control. AirHelp has already helped 5 million people, taking the stress out of applying for compensation and making it as hassle-free as possible for travelers around the world.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Allianz Travel Insurance

The Allianz Travel Insurance company has built its reputation on partnering with agents all around the world to provide comprehensive travel insurance for their clients. Contact Allianz Travel Insurance for a comprehensive list of coverage.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Chubb

Chubb is the world’s largest publicly traded property and casualty insurance company, and recognized as the premier provider of insurance for successful individuals and families in the U.S. and selected international markets, offering coverage for high-value automobile, homeowners, recreational marine/aviation, valuables and umbrella liability coverage. As an underwriting company, Chubb assesses, assumes and manages risk with insight and discipline, and combines the precision of craftsmanship with decades of experience to conceive, craft and deliver the best insurance coverage and services to individuals, families and business of all size.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Fareportal

Fareportal’s portfolio of brands, which include  CheapOair and  OneTravel, are dedicated to helping customers enjoy their trip. Whether you want to call, click, or use one of our travel apps, one thing is clear: We make it easy to take it easy.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Insuremyrentalcar.com

An independent provider of low cost CDW/LDW insurance for use with rental cars. Up to $100,000 cover with no deductible. Policies available on a per day, per trip or per year basis. Also works with overseas rentals. Try  Insuremyrentalcar.comnow.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by G1G.com

Since its inception over three decades ago, G1G has continued to revolutionize the travel insurance industry by being the only aggregator to operate a customer portal, placing all of the user's primary needs in one place. We have continued to innovate and disrupt the market by reimagining the way travel insurance can be delivered to the end user in ways no competition can. Simply put, no one knows the market as well as its founders and no one else shares G1G values and mission.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Mediacom Communications

The nation’s fifth-largest cable operator, serving the smaller cities and towns in the Midwest and Southern regions of the United States. We are a high-performance broadband, entertainment, and communications company that brings the power of modern technology and quality customer experience to life inside the connected home by combining ultra-fast gigabit speeds with personalized local and over-the-top entertainment choices that fit your lifestyle. Details at  Mediacomcable.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Arch RoamRight

Arch RoamRight is one of the fastest growing, most-highly rated travel insurance companies in the United States. Travel advisors love working with us, and travelers feel protected with our trip cancellation and travel medical insurance coverage. We also make it easy to file a claim online with our fast, paperless claims website. Learn more about RoamRight travel insurance.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Virtuoso

The leading global network for luxury and experiential travel. This invitation-only organization comprises over 1,000 travel agency locations with 17,500 advisors in over 45 countries, and holds preferred relationships with 1,700 of the world’s finest travel companies. Virtuoso advisors collaborate with their clients to create personalized itineraries featuring exclusive perks, while also providing advice, access, advocacy, and accountability. For more information, visit  Virtuoso.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by VisitorsCoverage

As a company that is constantly striving to simplify travel insurance, VisitorsCoverage, is on a mission to help travelers make the better decisions about purchasing travel insurance, quickly. VisitorsCoverage has helped millions of travelers globally to buy the suitable travel insurance and explore the world with confidence. Get insurance for your next trip at  VisitorsCoverage. Lowest Price Guaranteed.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by MedjetAssist

Medjet is the premier global air-medical transport, travel security and crisis response membership program for travelers. With a MedjetAssist membership, if you become hospitalized more than 150 miles from home, we will get you from that unfamiliar hospital all the way home to the hospital you trust. All you ever pay is your membership fee. MedjetHorizon members add 24/7 personal security and crisis response benefits. Elliott.org readers enjoy discounted rates. Travel safer with  MedjetAssist.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Southwest Airlines

The mission of Southwest Airlines is dedication to the highest quality of Customer Service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and Company Spirit. We are committed to provide our Employees a stable work environment with equal opportunity for learning and personal growth.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by TravelInsurance.com

TravelInsurance.com makes it fast and easy to compare and buy travel insurance online from top rated providers. Our unbiased comparison engine allows travelers to read reviews, compare pricing and benefits and buy the right policy with a price guarantee, every time. Compare and buy travel insurance now at  TravelInsurance.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Squaremouth

Squaremouth helps travelers easily and instantly compare travel insurance policies from all major providers. Only companies that meet the strict requirements of Squaremouth’s Zero Complaint Guarantee are available on the website. Compare policies on  Squaremouth.com to save over 70 percent on your next purchase.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travel Leaders Group

Travel Leaders Group is transforming travel through its progressive approach toward each unique travel experience. Travel Leaders Group assists millions of travelers through its leisure, business and network travel operations under a variety of diversified divisions and brands including All Aboard Travel, Andrew Harper Travel, Colletts Travel, Corporate Travel Services, CruCon Cruise Outlet, Cruise Specialists, Nexion, Protravel International, SinglesCruise.com, Travel Leaders Corporate, Travel Leaders Network and Tzell Travel Group, and its merger with ALTOUR. With more than 7,000 agency locations and 52,000 travel advisors, Travel Leaders Group ranks as one of the industry’s largest retail travel agency companies.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travelers United

If you’ve been mistreated by the airlines, Travelers United is your voice in Washington. Join the #1 travel advocacy organization working with Congress to improve and protect travelers. Plus, get $400 of annual benefits you can use for travel for only $29/year. Add your voice to ours. Make travel better.  Join today.

Send this to a friend