In 2018, lawmakers passed legislation calling for regulators to set more constricting rules regarding minimum leg room requirements and the width and length of commercial airline seats, as well as reducing the minimum recline pitch of seats. If you have flown coach in the past, I am guessing you may have noticed, especially on newer planes and budget airline flights.
According to a Market Watch report, when the proposed new regulations were introduced, a lawsuit filed by passengers rights group FlyersRights.org alleged that anybody who is 6-feet-2-inches or taller, or more than 250 pounds, cannot fit into these new seats without encroaching on their neighbor or into the aisle. Some carriers have also reconfigured their planes to not only use this newfound space to cram in more seats but also to introduce smaller lavatories. If you are that 6-foot-2 individual mentioned earlier, I am guessing that means you will be forced to enter the lavatory from a seated position.
At the time, a study released by travel site Expedia suggested that growing discomfort of airline passengers and a perceived violation of personal space could be to blame for a series of cases of in-flight meltdowns. Many of these incidents led to arrests and were highly publicized.
Says The Travel Insider, this industry quest for more and more seats really took off in 1969 with the introduction of the 747, which instantly doubled passenger capacity per flight. Nearly all that growth was in coach rather than first class.
What was known as the “golden age” of travel in the 1930s and 1940s had led commercial airlines to experiment for a time with things like first class lounges and piano bars. It was short-lived. “The airlines quickly decided there was more money to be made by adding another 20 or 30 coach class seats than in having open spaces for their small number of first class passengers,” says The Travel Insider.
This was all working out well for the commercial airline industry. Up until just a few months ago, the nation’s airlines were enjoying record or near-record profits.
According to Airlines for America, the trade group for the country’s carriers, since the global outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic started taking hold in mid-March, demand for air travel in the U.S. has fallen 96%, leaving domestic flights carrying an average of only 15 to 20 passengers.
As part of the economic stabilization package that Congress passed last month, the airline industry received a $25 billion bailout in the form of grants and loans to pay flight attendants, pilots and other employees. This announcement is good news for the hardworking people of this vital industry.
As we take the next step in finding the “new normal” that awaits us all as we move forward, we must wonder what it will look like for the airline industry. Recent announcements have given us some idea, at least in the near term.
Citing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s findings, JetBlue became the first U.S. airline to announce it will require passengers to wear face coverings during flights. All major U.S. airlines have adopted some form of this strategy.
According to the Los Angeles Times, the nation’s largest flight attendants’ union, representing more than 50,000 members on 20 airlines, has been pushing carriers to make masks mandatory for passengers and crew members, as well as other employees who deal directly with the public.
“What we’re hoping instead is that virtually all customers will choose for their own protection and out of respect for others on the airplane to wear a mask in flight,” American Airlines CEO Doug Parker explained to The Associated Press. Many airlines are merely “encouraging passengers” to wear masks. It is not required. Airlines are also making masks available to passengers at no cost.
Several airlines say they are blocking some or all middle seats to create social distancing, says the Associated Press. “That is possible now on most flights but will become more difficult when passengers begin returning in bigger numbers — airlines would forfeit revenue if they block seats then,” they add. “Recently passengers have posted photos on social media of crowded planes with many passengers who weren’t covering their faces despite the recommendation … airlines created the crowds by canceling other flights and packing passengers onto fewer planes.”
In a meeting with the president in March, executives from some of the nation’s top airlines pointed out that they have stepped up procedures to keep planes clean and disinfected amid concerns about the coronavirus. As mentioned in the Associated Press story, some carriers are now using misting machines to spray anti-viral chemicals inside the cabin, as well as trying to persuade passengers that air passed through high-efficiency filters inside the plane is safe to breathe.
According to a two-year study by microbiologists and engineers at Auburn University, the problem areas for germs on planes, when not cleaned properly, are airline seat upholstery, tray tables, armrests, seatback pockets and the lavatory handles. The study found that bacteria can live for up to a week on such surfaces. In a deep cleaning, the ceiling, walls and overhead bins are sanitized, floor and cloth seats shampooed, and synthetic seat covers disinfected. There currently is no single industry standard for deep cleaning. In the past, there could be a lapse of as much as 90 days between such cleanings. Traditionally, the Federal Aviation Administration does not regulate or inspect aircraft cleaning, leaving frequency and thoroughness up to individual airlines.
Will the public still rise to the bait of “cheap tickets” to once more go elbow-to-elbow in planes that, as in the past, are quickly cleaned and turned around? Will they choose to once more accept both the real (ever-shrinking planks for seats) and the imagined (germs lurking on surfaces) and ignore what the past few months have taught them? We will soon see.