Congress: Please Don’t Try to Protect Us from Airlines By Limiting Fees or Increasing Seat Sizes

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Dear Senators and Congressmen,

According to a report Friday on thehill.com, after years of failing to pass seat-size regulations because of Republic opposition, seat-size language has now been added to House and Senate bills that are very likely to pass:

The Republican-led Congress is warming up to the idea of creating new consumer protections for travelers, an idea considered controversial just over a year ago.

GOP lawmakers rejected past efforts to establish minimum seat sizes and rein in airline fees, but provisions to do just that were easily added to must-pass aviation legislation this year…

[Rep. Steve] Cohen (D-Tenn.) and Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) have been trying for years to require the government to develop minimum standards for seat sizes and the distance between rows on commercial flights, an effort they say is necessary to protect the safety and health of passengers. [Scott: Emphasis mine.]

The language was handily rejected last year by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in a 26-33 vote, while a similar effort led by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) to stop seat sizes from getting smaller failed 42-54 on the Senate floor.

The votes mostly fell along party lines, with Republicans arguing that it’s not the government’s role to define comfort by mandating minimum seat sizes…

But this year, about one month after American Airlines announced it would slash legroom in its economy class seats by another two inches, [Scott: Emphasis mine] the House Transportation panel added Cohen and Kinzinger’s seat size amendment to the FAA bill by voice vote, along with a block of other non-controversial amendments.

Seat size language was also included in the Senate’s FAA proposal.

I oppose Congress granting the FAA or any other government body the ability to mandate seat size on airlines. Regulating seat size is unnecessary, not the role of the government in a free society, and goes against consumers’ interests. Plus supporters are lying about their motives for wanting to regulate seat size.

Reps. Cohen and Kinzinger say they want to regulate seat size for our “safety and health”, which is risible because flying has continued to get safer as seat sizes have shrunk. “The last time anyone died on a U.S.-certificated scheduled airline was Feb. 12, 2009,” so don’t act like this about safety. And what exactly are the health concerns of smaller seats? Many airlines in Asia and Europe have smaller seats, and I don’t see an epidemics there caused by a little less comfort while flying.

So why are Cohen and Kinzinger pushing a law to make bigger seats? Just to score political points. They know people complain about airlines and miss an imagined golden age of flying. What I know, though, is that despite the complaints, people prefer flying today.

That’s why U.S. passenger-miles have increased 20-fold since 1960 and nearly doubled since 1990.

Why are we flying more? Mainly because the price has fallen dramatically in inflation-adjusted terms.

Why has the price fallen? Mainly because the government stopped regulating airlines and let the market deliver us competition.

Let’s not take a step backwards by regulating airline seats. We can mandate larger seats, but they will just raise prices. Purchase after purchase, year after year, people vote with their wallets that they don’t want bigger seats for higher prices. In the last decade, low-cost carriers have thrived by offering less leg room for lower prices in the United States (Spirit), Europe, and Asia.

If people didn’t like these airlines, they’d quickly go out of business. Instead, they continue to grow and their older competition continues to mimic them. That’s why the legacy carriers are adding in more seats with less leg room: because we want it. If they offer more leg room in their cheapest seats for a little extra money, we don’t buy their tickets.

But, if you’re worried about seats shrinking too far, again the market has us covered. The article mentions that Cohen and Kinzinger’s amendment made the bill one month after American Airlines announced it would cut leg room by another two inches. That’s ironic because that decision was reversed before it was implemented after public outcry made AA realize it would be a step too far. (The market also has us covered with Economy Plus/Main Cabin Extra/etc seats with extra leg room and First Class seats with lots of extra legroom that anyone can buy if they value that space.)

People have voted with their airfare purchases that they don’t want more legroom for a higher price. Let’s not give them what they don’t want. Smaller seats are perfectly safe and healthy, and the market enforces a natural minimum size below which people rebel and won’t fly.

We’ve seen airline regulation before. It leads to expensive flights that only the wealthy can afford. And we’ve seen the benefits of deregulation as prices have plummeted and air travel has expanded greatly. Reps. Cohen and Kinzinger: don’t regulate airline seat size.

While you’re at it, don’t regulate airline fees.

Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) unsuccessfully tried to attach an amendment to last year’s FAA bill that would prohibit airlines from imposing ancillary fees that the DOT deems unreasonable or disproportionate to the actual costs incurred by air carriers…

This year, however, the committee adopted Markey’s language on fees unanimously.

“Airlines should not overcharge captive passengers just because they need to change or cancel their flight, and my amendment will protect consumers from these sky-high fees,” Markey said in a statement…

“We’d like the airlines to understand what they should be doing on their own for consumer protections that are reasonable, rational and common sense,” Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-N.J.), chairman of the Transportation subcommittee on aviation, told The Hill last month. “And if they don’t do it on their own, we’re going to help them out.”

These guys sound like Venezuelan politicians. Instead of central planning of “reasonable” fees, let’s let the market decide.

I’m all for requiring high standards for the disclosure of fees so we can compare apples to apples, but we already have that. United has a huge pop up if you try to pick Basic Economy.

Spirit breaks down exactly what its insane bag fees are.

By contrast Southwest allows free carry ons, free checked bags, and free cancellations. These differing business strategies are the sign of a competitive market that benefits consumers. Let’s keep things as is instead of capping fees. Setting maximum prices for businesses inevitably leads to disastrous outcomes.

Bottom Line

I oppose all attempts to regulate airline seat size and airfare fees as unnecessary, anti-consumer, and illiberal.

Competition has delivered us advances in air travel and will continue to do so. If Congress really wants to improve flying, it should lean on the Justice Department to approve fewer mergers to keep airline competition healthier instead of interfering with the free market.


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29 COMMENTS

  1. Don’t agree with you this time round. There comes a time to be sane. Everyone has a line to draw. Standing seats? $500 for a drink? I’m okay with a little regulation on this front.

    • Standing seats, I’m fine with. If most people aren’t, they won’t catch on, and the airline without them will crush the airline with them.

      $500 a drink? Won’t happen. Is that the price you see at stadiums or amusement parks? If it did happen, the airline would make less money compared to the current standard of $7 and would see its competitors who charge $7 drive it out of business.

      These objections are the exact kind of thing the free market deals with well and effortlessly.

  2. Competition driving the market is fine if the market is big enough, but what about smaller airports that are dominated by one carrier? Or even larger airports like Toronto whose routes are dominated by one carrier? Air Canada recently created a low cost carrier called Rouge that has tiny seats, fewer cabin staff, and extra fees for everything. Unfortunately, Rouge is low cost only for Air Canada. They charge the same exorbitant fares as mainline for an inferior product. For many leisure destinations like Florida, Rouge is now the only choice to fly direct from Toronto most of the year.

    • If there is a monopoly, regulation improves efficiency. Luckily in America, we don’t have an airline monopoly. Hopefully we will not see any more mergers and the LCCs will grow, so we will see continued healthy competition.

  3. What about AA “s new economy with no carry ons nor reserved seats only middle ones. This makes the economy seats feel like the third class citizens.

    • I’m fine with United Basic Economy. No one is forced to take it. For $20 more, you can get what you’re used to. I don’t see anything wrong with getting what you pay for or price discrimination, which despite its ugly name can actually lead to an increase in consumer surplus.

  4. I disagree with you, Scott. I suspect you rarely fly in cramped, uncomfortable economy seats. When you mentioned airlines in other countries with smaller seats (especially Asian countries with smaller people) I wondered what you were using as your criteria? I would like to do more than just not die on a plane or be massively cramped and uncomfortable. You fail to recognize that health and safety is more than just cramming a body into a seat. It is being able to move, get up, get off the plane quickly, and figure out where to put your arms and your legs (beside the “smaller item under your seat”.) Not everyone has money, status and the foresight to get better seats. There are many who need last minute flights for funerals and family illness. Too bad for them? They should be stuck like sardines because the free market allowed this??? I think minimal seat size considerations should be set by the government, because we know the airlines will do what they can get away with. Anyone worried they aren’t making enough money?

    • I fly cramped seats all the time on American, Asian, and European LCCs. I don’t like it, but I rarely pay for more leg room.

      If you don’t have money for bigger seats, you don’t have money for bigger seats. If the government decrees bigger seats, prices will rise, and you simply won’t have the money to fly at all.

      It’s interesting you mention airline profit. Right now, the airlines are making record profits. It won’t last. Throughout history, airline investors have always lost everything. The greatest investor of all time called airlines “a death trap” historically (although he is currently invested in them. http://www.businessinsider.com/warren-buffett-10-billion-airline-investments-reveal-2017-2)

      As soon as oil prices rise or airlines increase capacity too far, they will go bankrupt again. It’s important to remember that airlines are basically money losers or small money makers. Adding costs or hampering their ability to make money will just drive them out of business, not help us.

      • I appreciate your views and the knowledge you have of the industry. That is why I read your daily info and have used your ticket service. I still think that the govt setting a minimal size seat makes logical sense. Thanks.

  5. I would rather take my chances with regulation than leave seat size to the airlines. Airlines are more like a utility than a free market operation.

  6. My Dad traveled from ORD >LAX in 1972 RT for $400 in cheap case so he could see his sick Uncle . I could do that for FREE today .I flew to FL. for a funeral I knew was coming FREE.
    Plan Ahead and Tell the Gov to Stand Down or better yet Go Home and Stay There.

    CHEERs

  7. Totally disagree. I remember and flew under regulation in coach. Simply no comparison to the “buses with wings” we have now. GIVE ME REGULATION AGAIN.

  8. I’m essentially with you Scott. Since it will drive Spirit snd Frontier out of business, and probably eliminate Southwest’s marketing strategy, and hobble foreign competitors flying out of the US, I think the effects for consumers will be to raise prices across the board. Be careful what you wish for.

  9. I both agree and disagree with you Scott. Agree, in that whenever government gets involved in regulating something (to paraphrase a law of physics: for every well intentioned piece of legislation there is an equal and opposite unintended consequence) the costs go up, convenience goes down, freedom takes a hit, or something else happens. An example would be DaveS’s comment of the effect on Southwest. Also agree in that the primary government intervention should be to look very closely at mergers because I feel that, due to those that occurred recently, we have less competition now than in the days of Branniff, Eastern, Western Pacific, Trans World, Continental, etc, etc. The big three can now effectively do nearly anything they want with bag charges and whatnot when they have control of a particular market.

    But, I disagree because I feel that competition is limited and left to their own devices the airlines will try to get blood from a beet. In effect there are limited market forces on the airlines (at least in the US). Does anyone recall the time when there were no seats blocking the starboard mid-fuselage door on the B-757? I do. It is also reported frequently that seat pitch has steadily declined over the past two to three decades. I am six feet tall and have been since puberty and the fusion of my growth plates in the long bones. I remember not feeling cramped when I flew in the 70’s compared to now. I do feel that something needs to be done to stop the continuous shrinking of seats and personal space. Pay a fair price for a fair seat and comfort, in my opinion. Flyers must also quit asking for rock-bottom prices but expect champagne and caviar.

    In the end, it is a complicated issue and will require a comprehensive approach of limited regulation that allows for a competitive market. Personally, I don’t know how to get there as that is not my profession. Until we do I will continue to not fly unless I can afford E-plus or better using cash or points.

  10. Let the airlines regulate themselves. As long as I have a choice, I can live with it. I recently booked Maui to India in Economy, did not want to waste any of my 400K miles for economy. I was within the 24 hour cancel window, when I had a choice of seats. I ended up with a choice between Virgin Atlantic and Air France for SEA to Europe. VA wanted $ 100 for exit row, AF only $ 25. So I chose Air France. I simply refuse to support those nickel and dime airlines. Whoever provides the better product for the best price, gets my business. Sorry AA for cutting legroom by 2″, you just lost my business.

  11. Disagree with you. While I certainly oppose the regulations of years past, I’m all in favor of regulating seat size. What’s my option? Vote with my wallet? Does that mean I would be forced into business class for airlines that didn’t have a premium economy available? For those of us who don’t live in large markets, we are further hampered by lack of competition thus “voting with our wallets” isn’t always an option

  12. I disagree so strongly with this. You have an incredibly naive and idealistic view of how markets work and rely on a LOT of generalization to arrive at the conclusion that unregulated markets always produce the most efficient result. Most efficient for the business, maybe, but there are many times that unregulated markets can end up with monopolies, colluding oligopolies, or just brazen scammers who have so much leverage they can afford to litigate rather than run a consumer-friendly business.

    I don’t know what market you’re based in (I’m guessing New York, Los Angeles, or some other huge coastal city) but your insinuation that the airline industry has enough competition is a complete joke. Let the market decide my ass when the only nonstop option I have for many flights in my Houston market is United and a single Southwest flight. Houston isn’t even that bad when you look at a lot of the Middle America markets that have a single carrier an outrageous prices to choose from.

    Honestly for someone that supposedly travels so much you have a travel blog, you have a pretty uninformed and naive opinion. Do you even fly out of any domestic market that isn’t JFK/EWR/SFO/LAX? As an obvious coastal elite, I’m surprised that you’re against regulation. As a heartland liberal, I have seen so many instances where the free market has failed consumers while making investors and executives very happy. The free market always provides the best outcome, if you’re the one that holds all the capital.

    • We have laws against colluding oligopolies. If the airlines collude, we can throw their execs in jail. Until then, you can get tons of insanely cheap prices out of Houston. Try looking at Spirit’s fares or connecting flights on Delta or American.

      And I live in Belgrade, Serbia, so not so much of a coastal elite these days…

  13. I really like your column generally but strongly disagree with you here. These are a few fundamental problems with your points:

    1. Oligopoly: You assume that the market is free and consumers select discomfort for lower prices. This point could be valid if there was meaningful competition in the skies. Unfortunately, repeated mergers have created an oligopoly or even monopolies in certain routes where airlines extract economic rents from travelers. This is not a free market or a meaningful channel for choice. This deserves a regulatory response (and probably the airlines should be broken up too).

    2. Safety and Other Standards: There should be a limit on the amount of discomfort inflicted upon our fellow humans. In the old days, we crammed people into steerage on ships. Should this misery be allowed on planes? I also believe high seat density WILL be a safety issue. Someday there will be a crash – and tight seats will make it hard to evacuate. On top of this, cramped conditions will increase incidences of dangerous conditions such as DVT. Animals that fly are entitled to basic standards. Humans deserve the same.

    3. Fee Abuses. Out of control fees result in numerous problems. For example, they are used to make pricing more opaque, which deceives customers and undermines comparison — which is at the heart of any free market. In addition, some fees transfer misery to others. For example, luggage fees result in clogged security lines and cabins.

    In the end, the market for air travel differs markedly from the free market ideal because of oligopoly, high fixed costs, joint-impact/externalities, and other issues. When a market is not free and the outcomes are potentially harmful to society, regulation is warranted.

    • The last sentence is true, but I see four to six airlines as enough competition. I’d like more, but I think we have enough to get the benefits of competition.

      I don’t find airline prices to be opaque. They are much easier to compare than the prices of most items. Try figuring out what hiring a lawyer or even a plumber will cost from the comfort of your own home.

      • If you agree with Eric’s last sentence to be true doesn’t that negate your whole post?

        I don’t think the number of airlines is the question, I think the question is the number of Airlines per route. I am in Houston and most of the time I have only 2 “realistic” choices, and sometimes only 1 choice. Of course the number of “choices” go up if I include extreme routes. i.e. is it really a viable “choice” for me to fly to Dallas (30minutes) if the route is through Boston?

        Airlines are easier than “most” items? Really” “most” items”? You think a product that changes price every week (sometimes every day) depending on your date of purchase and your flight date, not to mention multiple classes of product and multiple routes, is an easy purchase?

      • Hi Scott,

        The level of competition heavily depends on the routes. In some markets you have several airlines fighting for market share – and there is meaningful competition. However, many routes are served by one/few airlines – and prices are much higher.

        While airline pricing is more transparent than for some other items, search engines should be configurable to find conditions of passage. For example, it would be better to have searches for Basic Economy, or passengers with luggage, etc. Alternatively, some things could be mandated as basic service. My pet candidate is the bag fee which clogs up security and plane cabins.

  14. I disagree with you. The airlines are not a competitive free market business. They are heavily subsidized and propped up by the tax dollars, all the while regulated to keep out competitors. They have shown themselves to be greedy and uninterested in the customer, just like the big banks (do you think that banks are “free market”?, too). Consolidation in the industry has lead to monopoly power by the airlines, they choose to screw the customers so the executives can bump the stock price to get their bonuses.

    I think your Ayn Rand “beliefs” don’t square up with the current real world “facts”.

  15. It’s always Good to vote with ur wallet and if u can’t find a job or an airline u like MOVE ! I have SEVEN airports I can fly out of and it’s always the MONEY and the HASSLE what it comes down to . I have heard so many bad things about Ryan Air and I don’t want the hassle of flying them so I book EASYJET or the train but I do look @ them .
    I voted for BERNIE so I had hoped after he fixed the ACA , Student Loans , Free Housing , Loan Free Trucks (need one) he would get around to the FREE airlines tickets with the double wide seats so the obese yanks could fit in them .
    Lets TAX the First Class people or Bus. Class that will fix it .

    CHEERs

  16. Disagree completely. I am tall. Therefore, I cannot even consider a flight in economy on some airlines. How’s that for discrimination bub? At what point do I have to amputate my legs to take a flight? Why do I have to continually pay significantly more for a seat than the typical woman “might” squeeze into? I believe in common decency and common decency means a seat should accomodate at least the 95 percentile.

    • I am quite tall myself. I remember many years back United started Eco Plus as complimentary…whenever they checked me in here on Maui, they always just seated me there…oh yes, those were the days, none of this size discrimination yet.

  17. What’s the Airline that weights U and ur luggage then charges U by the pound it fly’s to Hawaii ?? Weight (cargo ,Fuel,Food,Water) is Huge in Fuel costs I think u have to use 3 gals to carry the last gal of fuel on a 17 hr Flt !!!!
    I’m 6’1 225 large pounds and UGLY I fit in ANY seat I pay for so Stay Home like I did till 35 so I could travel the way I wanted to .

    CHEERs

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