Richard Davis: Airlines should do more for passengers, or else

Published: Wednesday, June 19 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

Miami International Airport, Tuesday, April 16, 2013.

Associated Press

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Summer is the season for many Americans to take to the skies. Millions of vacationers will travel by air over the next couple of months. Many of them, particularly the vast majority who are flying economy, are probably dreading the experience.

Flying used to be more enjoyable. However, in recent years, it has become anything but. Now, airlines are charging extra for a seat that used to be standard. Meanwhile, economy seats have become narrower, less padded, and come with less room for long legs, or even short ones.

And it may get worse. Several airlines are planning on adding more rows of seats to planes by further reducing the size of each economy seat. Two non-American carriers even floated the idea of having some passengers stand rather than sit. Fortunately, American airlines haven't gone that far yet.

Is the solution to avoid flying these airlines? That is easy to say, but hard to do. Airline mergers have made flying choices limited. Four major airlines control a majority of the market and they dictate the practices. Consumers don't have many other flying options.

Maybe the solution is just not to fly at all. That is as impractical as telling someone who doesn't like telephone service to use the telegraph. In this age, airline travel is the main long distance transportation, particularly for business travel. There are not viable options there either.

Yet something could be done. Congress could insist on airline passengers' rights. Actually, Congress already has taken some steps in that direction. In 2012, it passed legislation restricting airline practices in order to protect airline passengers' rights. These included improving the reporting of airplane delays, providing food and water at all times, and prohibiting airlines from charging for carry-on luggage. And the FAA also has acted. It adopted a rule fining airlines for tarmac delays.

But that is not enough. It is time to do more to provide airline passengers with a minimum of comfort, personal space and security. Such changes could ease the tense atmosphere on planes caused by overcrowding and increase the enjoyment of flying again. Giving airline companies several years to comply, Congress should set:

A minimum seat width of 20 inches: Too many airlines are adopting 17-inch seats to add seats and passengers. But Americans are becoming physically larger. Airline seats should accommodate that reality.

A minimum seat pitch (the distance from the back of one seat to the back of another) of 35 inches: Some airlines have seat pitches as short as 30 inches. Americans are also getting taller. Again, airline legroom space should be adjusted to fit real people.

Ban overbooking: Airlines should be allowed to sell only as many tickets as they have seats. No passenger should be involuntarily bumped when he or she has purchased a ticket and arrived in time to redeem it.

These standards should not have to be regulated by the government. They should be an automatic part of the service provided by an airline to its customers. However, today they are not. I am not suggesting airlines should not make a profit, but the airlines have been doing well in recent years. In 2012, they had a combined profit of $5.3 billion. Can't they allocate some of that profit to greater comfort for passengers, which in turn will increase a desire to travel?

Admittedly, placing more stringent regulations would be a tough fight on Capitol Hill. The airline lobby is powerful. But the threat of that regulation may cause the airlines to avoid legislation by agreeing on their own to impose these industry-wide standards. That way an airline is not seeking the lowest possible level of service to gain greater profits and then being followed downhill by the others. Putting a floor on the treatment of passengers in these areas assures that no airline uses the lowering of these standards to undercut the others. They all would play on a level field.

For many years, United Airlines' motto was "Fly the Friendly Skies." United and the other major airlines should make the skies more friendly for economy passengers, or Congress should do it for them.

Richard Davis is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University. His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of BYU. Email: Richard_Davis@byu.edu

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