Two weeks ago I wrote that British Airways is introducing seats with 29 inches of pitch and no recline. That’s an inch less space than Ryanair offers from seat back to seat back.
BA has been on a single mind quest to destroy its brand. It’s no coincidence that parent company IAG CEO Willie Walsh chose the CEO of their low cost airline Vueling to run the British flag carrier.
Since word of BA’s new seats without recline came out the buzz word has been that they’re pre-reclined, a phrase I first heard from former Spirit Airlines CEO Ben Baldanza. It’s a silly statement, but it’s also true that their seats aren’t completely upright.
The seats on American’s Boeing 737 MAX aircraft have 30 inches of pitch (they were shamed not to go with 29 inches in some rows) and instead of reclining 4 degrees they recline just two degrees.
Is Eliminating Seat Recline in Coach Actually a Good Thing?
Cranky Flier says getting rid of recline in coach is a good thing. It’s been the source of customer frustrations for a long time. Does anyone remember the 2014 United flight that diverted over an altercation stemming from one passenger wanting to recline, while the passenger behind had installed a ‘knee defender’ on the seat?
Cranky says it’s all about the laptop, and has nothing to do with seat pitch,
It’s always been annoying. Further, it doesn’t matter how much seat pitch you have when you’re watching your laptop get crunched or your bottle of water get knocked off the tray table. The tray table goes with the seat in front regardless of how far it is from you. Those items are going to be smashed regardless.
Customers can’t be courteous and mindful of the passenger behind them, so it’s necessary to take away recline. I once paid a child (with their parent’s permission) $5 not to recline their seat during a Cleveland – Los Angeles flight so I can work. That worked out great.
In any case, there are seats which recline in their own shell, taking space away from the reclining passenger’s legroom instead of from the passenger behind, though those seats are more expensive to maintain.
Airlines Aren’t Getting Rid of Recline for Passenger Comfort
However airlines aren’t getting rid of recline to make passengers more productive inflight they’re doing it so they can squeeze more seats in planes. They think they can get 29 and 30 inch pitch as long as the passenger in front isn’t taking any of that space away.
It’s crucial that American ditched full recline in coach when taking away an inch between seats. It’s just as important that they installed seats with less padding, too. And the lack of seat back video does make the seat feel more spacious.
Cranky and I agree that if an airline is going to squeeze more seats onto a plane like American did in first going from 150 to 160 seats on their 737s and now to 172, they have to reduce or eliminate recline. They probably have to reduce lavatory space, too. That doesn’t mean, however, that eliminating all recline is a good unto itself.
Bad Incentives Lead Airlines to Offer Poor Passenger Experience
The issue is that the US carriers are simultaneously racing to offer good hard products for premium customers (although oddly American is reducing the quality of its first class cabin in those new 737s too so the phenomenon really is largely limited to international premium customers) while reducing the quality of the product offered to economy customers.
I believe there are two reasons for this.
- Lack of competition
- The antiquated and regulated way airline tickets are sold
We Need to Remove Barriers to Competition
When I say ‘lack of competition’ I do not mean to suggest US airlines have any sort of monopoly. That would be a silly claim in a world where ticket prices are falling. But with only a handful of airlines, incumbents seek to grow to grab every customer segment instead of specializing. The problem is government barriers to new entrants.
- We won’t let foreigners come invest in new airlines. Foreign ownership rules limit competition to investors already here, rather than entrepreneurs who run airlines elsewhere in the world.
- Local government airport authorities captured by the airlines. Government airports in the U.S. enter into long-term renewable gate leases that block competitors from building up service at major airports. New airlines, if they could get started, wouldn’t be able to fly at any scale where most passengers are. Access to gates is why Alaska Airlines had to buy Virgin America.
There are other anti-competitive challenges, too, of course including regulatory and legislative capture and the hurdles that airlines have lobbied for in starting new competitors for instance. But these are two of the big ones.
Consumers Need to Be Shown Passenger Experience Features Not Just Schedule and Price
More competition alone may not be enough to encourage product differentiation, and some greater differentiation might occur without additional entrants, if airline tickets weren’t sold almost exclusively on the basis of schedule and price. The majority of consumers don’t know the difference in product to expect up front, making it difficult to buy on quality and removing any incentive for airlines to offer those customers quality.
And that’s why airlines continue experimenting with squeezing passengers buying purely on schedule and price. They don’t know any better, so they keep on buying.
And government has been reinforcing this approach. Full fare advertising regulations, while reasonable, put the focus of sales on price. The Obama administration considered a rule that all airline schedule and price displays would have to include – up front – the cost of ancillary fees for things like carry on bags or second checked bags.
Credit: US Department of Transportation
I filed a regulatory comment expressing concern that this would pre-empty efforts to display differences in passenger experience like legroom, inflight internet, or other passenger concerns and boil competition even further down to price.
The Obama administration didn’t act on the proposal after several years (unable to figure out a way to do it without causing more harm than good), and the Trump administration closed out the regulatory docket without issuing new rules> — and has come under criticism by consumer groups for doing so.
We need innovation in how travel is sold, and that hasn’t been coming from airlines or online travel agencies in a meaningful way. Customers buy on schedule and price because that’s what is presented to them.
When customers are presented with more meaningful information to help them make the best decision for their trip, customers can make better decisions and the incentive to destroy the customer experience will be mitigated or at least some carriers — ideally more carriers than we have today — will be encouraged to experiment with a better product.