Squished in flight as airlines squeeze economy seats
Passengers rank airline satisfaction low in surveys.
The New York Times
Let me spill a secret here. The truth is, I really do not like to travel, even though I have to.
Days before I'm due to fly, I turn gloomy. "You'd think you were going into the hospital for open-heart surgery rather than going to the airport for a flight to New Orleans," my wife told me recently.
Evidently, I am not alone. Last week, J.D. Power and Associates released its annual North American airline satisfaction report, which showed that overall passenger satisfaction with airlines declined this year after two years of small improvements. The study measured customer evaluations of fares and fees, in-flight services, boarding and baggage, flight crew, check-in and reservations and the airplane cabin and seating.
Another evaluation comes from the American Customer Satisfaction Index. It found that while overall passenger satisfaction increased slightly this year, "air travel continues to be problematic, with low passenger satisfaction, rising prices, expanding fees and generally poor customer service."
The small gain in that index was the result of fewer people complaining about checked-bag fees. It wasn't because passengers had accepted the fees, but because they were "becoming savvier and avoiding checking luggage," the report said, adding, "The number of passengers surveyed who checked luggage dropped by nearly 20 percent from a year ago."
That certainly underscores the fact, addressed here recently, that a lot of passengers are making the flying experience worse by lugging on bags, including oversize bags, that would have once been checked. To address the problem of overhead bins that can't handle the added cargo, airlines are considering adding fees at the departure area to "gate-check" oversize bags. Alaska Airlines already has such fees. The bags are now checked there free if they can't fit on board.
Interestingly, both J.D. Power and American Customer Satisfaction found that passengers favored two airlines that did not charge for checked bags, JetBlue Airways and Southwest Airlines. Southwest allowed two free checked bags; JetBlue allowed one. The J.D. Power and American Customer Satisfaction Index both put JetBlue on top in customer satisfaction, edging Southwest.
Both reports suggested there was, beyond baggage concerns, a more general area of dissatisfaction, and that was the overall in-flight experience, especially in the coach cabin. J.D. Power, for example, said attitudes toward "a carrier's process and people, rather than price" were the main drivers of passenger satisfaction.
Those of us consigned to the cheap seats in coach are tired of being uncomfortable on airplanes, even as those in the high-price business- and first-class cabins — and the new higher-price premium economy seats — enjoy extra space and service, which are especially lavish on international flights.
Consider, for example, the gushing reports filed by world airline reporters after a recent media trip to Lufthansa headquarters in Frankfurt, Germany, about the comforts in first and business class on Lufthansa's new 747-8 airplanes. But they generally overlooked the fact that these behemoths hold 362 passengers — 262 of them stuffed into coach seats with a scant 31 inches of legroom, in rows that are 10 seats across. That makes for a very long trip back there in Row 43 from Frankfurt to Washington Dulles, I'd guess.
Similarly, Southwest Airlines recently received effusive publicity as it began rolling out its new cabin designs, which it called Evolve: The New Southwest Interior. These cabins are definitely nicer, with redesigned lightweight seats that provide a better sense of "personal living space," as Southwest puts it.
On the other hand, the new seats for the Southwest 737s have 31 inches of pitch, instead of the previous 32 inches. This allows Southwest to squeeze one extra row of seats onto the planes, increasing passenger capacity to 143 from 137 while adding "greater revenue potential," as Southwest said.
I would suggest that simple physics is at work in coach cabins, however smart the interior design. Joe Brancatelli, the publisher of the subscription website Joesentme.com, agreed.
"I don't want a sense of space. I want the space," he said. With all the cutbacks, "there's nothing left in coach except space, so it really comes down to how much you can get."
That is, how much you're willing to pay for, as major airlines increasingly slice and dice those coach sections to entice business travelers with slightly more space — but at a much higher price. A looming question is whether corporate travel managers will be willing to approve those extra fees for better space in the cramped coach cabin.
Incidentally, the Global Business Travel Association recently compiled a handbook to help travel managers "demystify" the expanding array of airline fees, said Joseph Bates, senior research director. Until making the list, "we didn't fully understand the universe of these fees, even while some travel managers are trying to put these fees into their policies to say what they will reimburse and what they will not reimburse," he said.
"Passengers want it all, but they are not necessarily willing to pay for it all," Stuart Greif, a J.D. Power vice president, said in the report. "Carriers often must make decisions for financial reasons that they know will negatively impact customer satisfaction, and therein lies the conundrum."