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?

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.

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.

Should I take Glenn Leonard's case?

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