Overbooked flights. Skimpy legroom. Storage bins packed to the max.
After 17 years of weekly business travel, David Bewley couldn’t stand the hassle anymore and quit his job as a franchise business consultant.
“One of the main reasons I retired was air travel,” the now infrequent flier said the other morning at Kansas City International Airport as he waited for a flight to Dallas, this time on personal business.
“Anymore,” the 61-year-old Blue Springs resident said, “I only do it when I have to.”
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Between the body scans, long lines and cramped seating in coach, flying is not much fun for any of us anymore. And some say it’s only getting worse as airlines press ahead with the now common strategy of packing ever more passengers onto fewer airplanes in the name of greater efficiency and profits.
Flights where a few open seats meant greater comfort for passengers are a thing of the past. Planes are generally full these days.
But rather than add more capacity to accommodate passenger demand, airlines are going so far as to shrink the size of the food prep areas and bathrooms on planes so they can squeeze in more rows of seats.
The technical term for the current trend, “upgauging,” may be arcane to all but industry insiders, but anyone unlucky enough to occupy the middle seat on an airliner is well aware of its meaning.
Critics say airlines are putting their bottom lines ahead of customer comfort and convenience.
“This is really about generating the maximum amount of profits and keeping airfares as high as possible,” said Paul Hudson, president of the consumer group FlyersRights.org.
The airline industry counters that upgauging is a financially prudent way to accommodate growing customer demand.
Back when there were close to a dozen major U.S. carriers, airlines were apt to add many more flights to meet increased demand. But sometimes that led to excess capacity, resulting in a lot of planes flying with empty seats.
Today the four remaining large carriers choose to operate fuller flights on a limited number of planes to save money. Some of that is then reinvested in newer planes with better amenities for the benefit of the customer, an industry spokesman said.
“Air travel remains one of the best consumer bargains in America,” said Vaughn Jennings with the industry group Airlines for America, “and airlines continue to invest more than $1 billion a month in things that customers value in the cabin and at airports.”
Those are things such as Wi-Fi, larger overhead bins, enhanced in-flight entertainment systems and more than 300 new planes last year alone, each of them with more seats crammed in than the ones they replaced.
However it’s shaded, the trend line is clear. Demand for air travel is up after slumping during the Great Recession.
Some 223 million Americans are projected to climb aboard U.S. commercial airliners this summer, 10 million more than last year and 20 million more than in 2010.
And yet the number of scheduled flights is not keeping the same pace.
KCI traffic provides a good example. On average, there were 15 percent fewer daily departures from Kansas City’s airport in the just-finished second quarter of 2015 compared to the second quarter of 2010.
Yet more people were flying: 4 million through the first five months of this year, compared to 3.8 million during the same period five years ago.
The airlines make the math work, first by upgauging: flying bigger airplanes on average than they did back then, with 15 percent more seating capacity, and jamming more seats into them. And then by focusing on keeping every one of those seats filled, even if it means angering ticketed passengers who might be bumped and have a tough time scoring a seat on the next packed flight.
“Airlines have gotten a whole lot better about controlling their inventory,” said Justin Meyer, deputy director of aviation at KCI. “Demand for air travel is very, very strong. And airlines have been very disciplined about how they put back their inventory into the market.”
Maybe too disciplined, some think. The Justice Department is investigating what a government spokeswoman this month called “possible unlawful coordination by some airlines.”
Illegal conspiracy or not, critics say airline executives have been sending open signals at industry gatherings, such as one last month where speakers made it clear that it was in the industry’s best interest to refrain from adding flights that might drive down fares and profitability.
“They talked about discipline,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, told NPR recently. “Kind of a fancy word for constraining the number of flights and what’s known as capacity in the industry.”
The industry denies violating antitrust laws, but the airlines make no apologies for pressing similar strategies.
“Generally speaking, upgauging is a financially conservative way to accommodate the growth in demand while maintaining the affordability of air travel for consumers,” said Jennings at Airlines for America, which speaks for the four largest U.S. carriers: United, American, Delta and Southwest.
One key has been for airlines to reduce their reliance on the small, regional jets (those 50-seat puddle jumpers few of us are fond of) that for roughly the last 15 years have ferried passengers to hub airports from non-hubs like KCI.
They have since shifted more to narrow-body jets like the Boeing 737 for domestic travel. Historically, the number of seats on those planes has averaged about 150, but that number is rising as airlines retrofit existing planes to add more rows of seats. Airplane manufacturers are also designing newer planes with more seats to meet airline requirements.
One European budget airline, Ryanair, is now awaiting delivery of 737s with as many as 200 seats.
Similarly, more seats are being added to the jumbo jets that are a mainstay of overseas travel. Boeing, for instance, unveiled plans at last month’s Paris Air Show to add 14 seats on its 777-300ER wide-body jet by reducing the size of the bathrooms on board.
Boeing said customer comfort won’t suffer. Better-designed lavatories will make it possible to increase seat capacity from the current 386 seats.
But industry skeptics don’t buy that explanation, nor do they have much patience with the airlines’ practice of installing thinner seat cushions as a way to add rows of seats. And even then, seats still feel cramped.
“The airlines need to adjust the space they give passengers to something a little more realistic,” said Douglas Kidd at the National Association of Airline Passengers.
Groups like Kidd’s and FlyersRights.org are petitioning the government in hopes of setting new minimum seating standards.
But so far that hasn’t led to new regulations. Meanwhile, the trend is clearly headed in the other direction. Seat widths on airliners now average 17 inches, down an inch and a half from the 1990s and early 2000s, even as American bottoms grow wider.
Seats and the space between them are not all that’s shrinking. The International Air Transport Association recently floated a proposal to reduce the maximum size of carry-on bags by 20 percent.
Critics said that would force passengers to either buy new luggage or check their bags, providing even more revenue to the majority of U.S. airlines that now charge fees for checked bags.
“There’s a limit to how much consumers can take,” U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, told reporters last month. “I feel consistently when I’m flying that I get squeezed in more and more into smaller and smaller spaces and I have to pay more for just about everything that I used to get under the base price for my ticket.”
His is a common sentiment, polls show. Yet with more and more people buying airline tickets and record-high industry profits projected at $29 billion this year, there’s little incentive for the airlines to change course.
While upgauging is the latest wrinkle, customer dissatisfaction with the airlines always tends to grow when demand for air service is at its greatest, said Wichita State University marketing professor Dean Headley.
For the past 25 years, he and collaborator Brent D. Bowen, dean of aviation at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Ariz., have tracked this in their annual Airline Quality Rating.
This year’s AQR was the worst in the past five years, but not as bad as 2007, before the recession set off the upgauging trend. Declines came in all performance areas tracked: flight delays, mishandled baggage, bumped passengers and consumer complaints reported to the government.
“People look at three things,” Headley said. “Were they on time? Did they get my bag? Was it a hassle?”
There was a time not that long ago, in the 1990s, when the answers to all three questions were positive reflections on the airlines, he said.
“I don’t like to fly, actually,” Headley said. “Everything about it just bugs the crap out of me.”