In January 2015 Eileen Dube of Glendale, Calif., spent $2,268 booking round-trip flights online from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., for her husband, herself, and their two daughters for a mid-March vacation. When she went to select their seats, all that was available were middle seats or ones that required an additional fee. “I called the airline because I was sure there must be a mistake—we weren’t departing for over two months,” she says.
Dube recalls that an American Airlines reservation agent told her that she had “paid to travel, not for your seat” and explained that many seats are blocked off by the airline (for frequent flyers or to sell to passengers for an additional charge). She then suggested Dube pony up an additional $41 per person to guarantee that she and her husband could sit with their daughters, then 8 and 12 years old, on the 5-hour flight.
Dube refused to pay more and registered a complaint on American’s website. A customer relations agent wrote back to say what the reservations agent had failed to mention: that at check-in American could assist the family so that they could sit together without paying more. The day of the departing flight the Dubes were indeed seated together—in the last row of the plane and inches from the toilet, she said.
American isn’t the only airline to make advance seat selection, once free, something you have to pay for if you want a desirable seat. Fortunately, the financial impact that policy was having on families got the attention of Congress. In July it inserted language into the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill (PDF) requiring airlines to ensure that children 13 years of age and younger are seated next to an adult or an older child traveling with them.
But there are still plenty of other inconveniences and downright indignities to face when flying in economy today. There was a time when airlines competed for passengers by trying to outdo one another with more comfortable cabins, better food, and general passenger pampering. Decades of bankruptcies, consolidation, and competition from low-cost carriers, however, have transformed the airline industry into one with a laser focus on the bottom line and little apparent regard for consumer comfort and convenience. Today, as anyone who flies well knows, economy seats are cramped, flights are packed, and passengers pay an ever-expanding number of fees for things that used to be free. Standing in long lines to check in, board, and use the bathroom (some lavatories have been removed to make room for more seats) has become routine. Not surprisingly, complaints against U.S. airlines were up 34 percent last year compared with 2014, according to the Department of Transportation.
The plight of flyers has caught the attention of the Department of Justice, which in June 2015 opened an investigation into whether the largest U.S. carriers—American, Delta Air Lines, Southwest Airlines, and United Airlines—have been colluding to keep ticket prices high. Perhaps not coincidentally, fares dipped about 3.7 percent last year, the first time they’ve gone down since 2012.
But flyers are seeing little of that savings because fees more than made up for the decrease. “Within the past decade, airlines realized they could sell more than just a flight; they could also sell flight-related services,” says Mark Gerchick, former chief counsel of the FAA and a former senior DOT official. “They started charging extra for transporting luggage; making a reservation by phone; changing or canceling a reservation; having a seat assigned; getting onboard first; providing snacks, drinks, and leg room,” Gerchick says.
Last year, U.S. airlines raked in profits totaling $25.6 billion, a 241 percent increase from 2014, according to the DOT. They earned more than $18 billion in so-called ancillary revenue, which includes all of those à la carte fees, as well as the sale of frequent-flyer miles to the banks that issue their cobranded credit cards, and commissions on hotel and car-rental bookings made on their websites, estimates IdeaWorksCompany, an airline consulting firm. (In 2010, that ancillary revenue was $6.7 billion.)
Another fee, which most passengers aren’t even aware they are paying, is a fuel surcharge. First levied by the airlines in the 1990s, the fee—which can approach or even exceed the base fare on international flights—is still being added to some ticket prices today (sometimes under the generic label “carrier-imposed charges”) even though the cost of fuel has dropped precipitously (airlines spent about 38 percent less on fuel last year than in 2014).
And, as Dube learned, the airlines are also squeezing passengers by reducing the number of fee-free seats in economy. On United flights, for example, 5 to 53 percent of the coach cabin seats offer extra leg room, for which a regular economy passenger pays an additional $9 to $299 per flight (elite frequent flyers can usually book them free).
If other airlines follow American’s lead, the number of no-fee seats may dwindle even more. It recently announced that early next year it will be the first U.S. carrier to offer Premium Economy, a new class of service between coach and business class, on international flights aboard its 787 Dreamliner planes. For a price somewhere between a business and economy fare, passengers will get larger seats; more leg room; seatback entertainment screens; early boarding; and free beer, wine, and spirits. It doesn’t take much imagination to wonder whether airlines are so radically stripping coach class of its former comforts so that all but the most cash-strapped and stoic passengers will pay a premium just to avoid it.
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The Good Old Days
Though it’s hard to even imagine it today, there was a time when flying was fun, even glamorous. “Many people refer to the beginning of the jet age in the late 1950s through the late ’70s as ‘the Golden Age of air travel,’ ” says Guillaume de Syon, an aviation historian who teaches at Albright College in Reading, Pa.
Fares, routes, and schedules were all regulated by the federal government, so airlines competed for customers based on service. Smiling stewardesses took your coat, stowed your bags, and might have offered you a free glass of Champagne. Each seat had a pillow and a blanket, and the captain sometimes even stopped by for a chat. Meals were often inspired or provided by well-known restaurants, including Maxim’s of Paris.
During the early 1970s, American even took seats out of economy on its 747s to make room for piano bars and lounges. Fighting over armrests was unheard of, because at least 40 percent of the seats on most flights were empty, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
But all of that space and pampering came at a price. Flying was expensive. A round-trip coach ticket between New York and Los Angeles was $104 in 1958 ($867.40 in today’s dollars), according to the industry trade group Airlines for America (A4A), while the median household income that year was $5,100.
The fun started to fade after the Airline Deregulation Act was passed in 1978 and the government ended its control of routes and fares. The immediate result, as intended, was a flood of new airlines and, along with them, an increase in the number of flights and lower fares.
But it was the beginning of a bumpy ride for the airlines that lasted for decades. “They struggled to create entirely new business models, and many low-cost competitors entered the industry,” Gerchick says. According to A4A estimates, there have been almost 200 airline bankruptcy filings since the deregulation began. Prior to 1978 bankruptcies were rare.
In addition to increased competition, airlines faced challenges such as the drop in passengers following the 9/11 attacks, as well as a dramatic rise in fuel prices. To survive, many that remained joined forces. There have been more than a dozen airline mergers since 2000, according to A4A estimates, leaving just four major airlines—American, Delta, United, and Southwest—controlling 80 percent of air travel in the U.S. last year—leaving travelers with few choices of what airline to fly and airlines with little incentive to improve the passenger experience.
Before the most recent merger—between US Airways and American—was approved in April 2014, the Department of Justice and attorneys general in six states and the District of Columbia filed a civil antitrust complaint challenging the union. The suit charged that the mergers between major airlines in recent years have “in tandem, raised fares, imposed new and higher fees, and reduced service. Competition has diminished and consumers have paid a heavy price.”
Though passengers have seen fees increase and comfort and convenience decline, the airlines argue that consolidation has made the industry better. “These mergers have allowed airlines to focus on renewing fleets and improving the product at all stages of travel. Fares are affordable, and modest profitability has enabled airlines to buy 388 new planes in 2015 . . . and add 10,600 new jobs,” Vaughn Jennings, managing director of government and regulatory communications for A4A, said in a statement.
Shrinking Seats, Growing Profits
To pack in more passengers and rake in even more money, airlines have rearranged their cabins and shaved inches from coach-class seats. The narrowest seats on U.S. airlines today measure 17 inches wide (16.5 on some foreign carriers), when 18.5 was about as tight as it got in 1985. For comparison, up in the front of the cabin, first class seating on American, Delta, and United measures from 21 to 30 inches.
The airlines have also dramatically downsized the distance between rows of seats—or pitch, in industry parlance—over the last 30 years, effectively stealing away our leg room. Some American, Delta, and United planes now have a seat pitch of only 30 inches in economy, anywhere from 1 to 5 inches less than in 1985. Spirit, the airline rated lowest by Consumer Reports subscribers responding to our airline satisfaction surveys in 2013 and 2015, offers a pitch of just 28 inches on most seats in all of its aircraft. (Download a PDF of the Consumer Reports National Research Center Airlines Survey.)
Empty seats are money losers, so airlines have gotten very good at filling more of them with people than at any time since airlines were troop carriers during World War II. Among U.S. airlines, the average flights were anywhere from around 42 to 58 percent full between 1954 and 1980, according to Department of Transportation statistics. By 2005 flights were 78 percent full; last year 83 percent of the seats on airplanes were filled. As a result, U.S. and foreign carriers flew more than 895 million passengers through U.S. airports in 2015, a record high.
A Question of Safety
The negative effects of those record loads extends well beyond boarding headaches and overhead bin storage shortages. Cramped seating might also increase your risk for deep vein thrombosis (DVT), a blood clot forming in one or more of the deep veins in your body, usually in your legs. If you don’t move frequently enough, especially on flights more than 4 hours long, blood clots can form in your legs, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They often dissolve on their own, but a serious health problem can occur when a part of a blood clot breaks off and travels to the lungs, causing a blockage—or pulmonary embolism—which may be fatal.
Another concern about cramped quarters is that planes are too full for passengers to safely evacuate in the case of an emergency. Before it will certify a new model of aircraft to enter service, the FAA requires its manufacturer to demonstrate that a full load of passengers can evacuate in 90 seconds with only emergency lighting and with half of the exits blocked. If the airlines add more seats (and consequently reduce seat pitch) after the model is tested, however, the FAA will accept a computer-simulated evacuation, and does not require the airline to do another evacuation test with people as long as the number of seats does not exceed the maximum number it was tested and certified for.
The tight quarters concerned Kevin Zwack, who took a Spirit flight from Denver to Ft. Lauderdale last September. “I’m 6’2” and weigh 280 pounds, and I noticed that the tight seating made it difficult for me and for the people in the rest of the plane to enter and leave their seats. I suspect it would take more than 90 seconds to evacuate a plane with such cramped seating.”
Paul Berry, a spokesman for Spirit Airlines, which has seat pitches of 28 inches on most of the rows in all of its planes, says that all of its aircraft have passed evacuation testing. “If there is a material change in configuration, then there is a new test,” he said in an email.
Consumer groups, including Consumer Reports, have expressed concern that the FAA does not always require additional aircraft evacuation testing, using people, on airplanes already in service with pitches of less than 31 inches, although some airlines—including Allegiant, Frontier, and Spirit—have aircraft with tighter seating. Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants, which represents almost 50,000 flight attendants on 18 airlines, agrees. “If the seats are smaller and closer together, that makes it harder for people to get out in an emergency, period,” she says. “We urge the FAA to mandate new safety testing of these tighter quarters.” Alison Duquette, spokeswoman for the FAA responding in an email, said, “The FAA is considering future research to evaluate various main aisle configurations, including various seat pitches, to determine if there are any safety issues.”
Separate amendments to the FAA reauthorization bill were introduced in Congress earlier this year (one by Sen. Charles Schumer, co-sponsored by Sen. Richard Blumenthal, and another by Rep. Janice Hahn and Rep. Steve Cohen) that would have set standards for the minimum amount of seat space airlines must provide passengers. “Shrinking seat sizes isn’t just a matter of comfort but safety and health as well. The Federal Aviation Administration requires that planes be capable of rapid evacuation in case of emergency, yet they haven’t conducted emergency evacuation tests on all of today’s smaller seats,” Cohen said in a statement. All of the amendments were rejected. The airlines donated almost $25 million to congressional members in 2015, according to the nonprofit, nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
Behind the Scenes
Regional airlines carried more than 158 million passengers in 2014, up from 41.5 million in 1990 (although down from a peak of 163.5 million in 2010). The major U.S. carriers contract with regional airlines to fly passengers when it makes financial sense (for example, when a route isn’t busy enough to justify using a full-sized aircraft). Unless you check carefully during the booking process, you might not realize you’ll be flying on a regional partner—and not on the airline you think you’re booking with.
United, for example, contracts with eight North American regional carriers, jointly known as United Express, that provide United-branded service: Aircraft are painted with United colors, including the company’s dark blue logo (the word “Express” is painted in a duller gray), and flight attendants wear the standard United uniform.
Though safety standards on regional carriers have improved after earlier concerns over inadequate pilot training and oversight, the low ceilings and narrow cabins of smaller regional planes can make them feel especially cramped. Smaller regional jets might also have little onboard storage and no seatback in-flight entertainment.
As another way to save money, airlines are outsourcing maintenance to third-party companies overseas. There were 344 FAA-certified overseas repair stations in 1994; by October 2015, the number had grown to 716, according to a July 2016 report by the Government Accountability Office.
Although they are required to follow FAA standards, overseas repair and inspection facilities are subject to less oversight than the FAA-run sites operated in the U.S., says Steve Carl, an Aviation Safety Inspector for the FAA. “I looked at the training records at one facility in Africa, and not one of its 36 inspectors was qualified to inspect the aircraft they were working on, based on qualifications outlined in that facility’s own training manual,” he says. “It’s harder to go back overseas and do follow-up inspections than it is for us to follow up on issues we find at U.S. facilities.”
Michael Gonzales, a regional vice president of the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists, the union that represents FAA inspectors, says that the number of overseas inspectors has dropped while workload has grown. “Although the U.S. safety record is admirable, I’m worried that fewer inspectors and less oversight might lead to some safety shortcuts that could cause serious problems in the future,” Gonzales says. FAA spokeswoman Duquette replied in a statement that both foreign and domestic repair stations are subject to rigorous scrutiny. “The FAA and aircraft operators audit domestic repair stations. Foreign repair stations are audited not only by the FAA and aircraft operators but also by international civil aviation authorities. These stations must renew their FAA certificate every 12 to 24 months, and if they don’t meet our standards, we do not approve the certificate.”
It’s true, as Gonzales notes, that U.S. airlines today have an impressive safety record: There have been no accident-related fatalities on U.S. carriers since 2009. Though passengers traveling during the “Golden Era” could sip free Champagne at the piano bar, flying was a lot less safe then: From 1964 to 1973, for example, U.S. airlines had an average of seven fatal accidents per year. So the next time you’re at 30,000 feet with your knees pressed to your chin, at least you can take comfort in the fact that chances are still excellent you’ll arrive at your destination safely and soundly—albeit in need of a good massage.
Our Fight to Improve Air Travel
Consumers Union, the policy and mobilization arm of Counsumer Reports, is working with legislators and regulators in Washington, D.C., on a variety of airline safety and customer-service initiatives. Here’s a brief rundown:
Mandating Seat Sizes
Consumers Union has joined with legislators and other advocates seeking to require the Federal Aviation Administration to impose minimum size and space standards for seats on U.S. airlines, because both leg room and seat width have shrunk while average passenger loads have soared. “It’s about more than just passenger comfort,” says William J. McGee, an airline expert who works with Consumers Union. “There are serious health and safety concerns, including the risk of deep vein thrombosis and the risk that passengers won’t be able to evacuate safely in an emergency.”
For years, Consumers Union has called for full transparency of airline pricing and advocated for measures that would make it easier to obtain an airfare’s total cost, inclusive of fees for checked baggage and other amenities.
In 2010, McGee represented Consumers Union as a passenger advocate on the Department of Transportation’s Future of Aviation Advisory Committee. He recommended that the FAA ban “lap children”—kids under 2 who are allowed to fly without proper restraints. The FAA does not require that babies be properly secured, even though both the National Transportation Safety Board and the FAA itself state that restraints are the safest way for babies to travel. Consumers Union continues to urge the FAA to ban lap children once and for all. “Ironically, our most vulnerable passengers are the least secure,” McGee says.
Consumers Union has advocated for vigorous investigation and enforcement by antitrust officials to stop airlines from further consolidating and from engaging in practices that thwart competition and consumer choice.
Every year millions of Americans purchase tickets on what they think are major airlines but are actually regional carriers, which operated 47 percent of flight departures in 2014. Consumers Union has asked the government for greater transparency of such practices.
Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the October 2016 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.
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