[Marxism] The end logic of airline deregulation

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Apr 25 12:03:26 MDT 2006


NY Times, April 25, 2006
One Day, That Economy Ticket May Buy You a Place to Stand
By CHRISTOPHER ELLIOTT

The airlines have come up with a new answer to an old question: How many 
passengers can be squeezed into economy class?

A lot more, it turns out, especially if an idea still in the early stage 
should catch on: standing-room-only "seats."

Airbus has been quietly pitching the standing-room-only option to Asian 
carriers, though none have agreed to it yet. Passengers in the standing 
section would be propped against a padded backboard, held in place with a 
harness, according to experts who have seen a proposal.

But even short of that option, carriers have been slipping another row or 
two of seats into coach by exploiting stronger, lighter materials developed 
by seat manufacturers that allow for slimmer seatbacks. The thinner seats 
theoretically could be used to give passengers more legroom but, in 
practice, the airlines have been keeping the amount of space between rows 
the same, to accommodate additional rows.

The result is an additional 6 seats on a typical Boeing 737, for a total of 
156, and as many as 12 new seats on a Boeing 757, for a total of 200.

That such things are even being considered is a result of several factors. 
High fuel costs, for example, are making it difficult for carriers to turn 
a profit. The new seat technology alone, when used to add more places for 
passengers, can add millions in additional annual revenue. The new designs 
also reduce a seat's weight by up to 15 pounds, helping to hold down fuel 
consumption. A typical seat in economy class now weighs 74 to 82 pounds.

"There is clearly pressure on carriers to make the total passenger count as 
efficient as possible," said Howard Guy, a director for Design Q, a seating 
design consultant in England. "After all, the fewer seats that are put on 
board, the more expensive the seat price becomes. It's basic math."

Even as the airlines are slimming the seatbacks in coach, they are 
installing seats as thick and heavy as ever in first and business class — 
and going to great lengths to promote them. That is because each passenger 
in such a seat can generate several times the revenue of a coach traveler.

At the front of the cabin, the emphasis is on comfort and amenities like 
sophisticated entertainment systems. Some of the new seats even feature 
in-seat electronic massagers. And, of course, the airlines have installed 
lie-flat seats for their premium passengers on international routes.

Seating specialists say that all the publicity airlines devote to their 
premium seats diverts attention from what is happening in the back of the 
plane. In the main cabin, they say, manufacturers are under intense 
pressure to create more efficient seats.

"We make the seats thinner," said Alexander Pozzi, the director for 
research and development at Weber Aircraft, a seat manufacturer in 
Gainesville, Tex. "The airlines keep pitching them closer and closer 
together. We just try to make them as comfortable as we can."

There is one bit of good news in the thinner seats for coach class: They 
offer slightly more room between the armrests because the electronics are 
being moved to the seatbacks.

One of the first to use the thinner seats in coach was American Airlines, 
which refitted its economy-class section seven years ago with an early 
version made by the German manufacturer Recaro.

"Those seats were indeed thinner than the ones they replaced, allowing more 
knee and legroom," Tim Smith, a spokesman for American, said. American 
actually removed two rows in coach, adding about two inches of legroom, 
when it installed the new seats. It promoted the change with a campaign 
called "More Room Throughout Coach."

But two years later, to cut costs, American slid the seats closer together 
and ended its "More Room" program without fanfare. When the changes were 
completed last year, American said its "density modification program" had 
added five more seats to the economy-class section of its MD-80 narrow-body 
aircraft and brought the total seat count to 120 in the back of the plane. 
A document on an internal American Airlines Web site, which was briefly 
accessible to the public last week, estimated that the program would 
generate an additional $60 million a year for its MD-80 fleet.

United Airlines has also used the earlier-generation thin seats. But it 
held open the possibility that once its current seat stock needs to be 
replaced, it might try to squeeze in more seats. "We're always looking at 
options," Brandon Borrman, a spokesman, said.

Airlines can only do so much with their existing fleets to save space. The 
real opportunities, say seat manufacturers and design experts, are with the 
new generation of aircraft that are coming soon.

"People hear about these new planes, and they have bowling alleys and 
barber shops," Michael B. Baughan, the president and chief operating 
officer of B/E Aerospace, a manufacturer of aircraft cabin interiors in 
Wellington, Fla., said with a bit of exaggeration. "But that's not how 
planes are delivered. On a real airline, with real routes, you have to be 
economically viable."

Perhaps the most extraordinary example of a new jet that could accommodate 
features unheard of previously is the Airbus A380. There is so much 
available room on the superjumbo that Virgin Atlantic Airways is even 
considering placing a beauty salon in its premium-class section. (No final 
decision has been made, according to the company.) The first A380 is 
scheduled to be delivered later this year.

With a typical configuration, the A380 will accommodate about 500 
passengers. But with standing-room-only seats, the same plane could 
conceivably fit in 853 passengers, the maximum it would be permitted to carry.

"To call it a seat would be misleading," said Volker Mellert, a physics 
professor at Oldenburg University in Germany, who has done research on 
airline seat comfort and has seen the design. If such a configuration were 
ever installed on an aircraft, he said, it would only be used on short-haul 
flights like an island-hopping route in Japan.

While an Airbus spokeswoman, Mary Anne Greczyn, played down the idea that 
Airbus was trying to sell an aircraft that accommodated 853 passengers, the 
company would not specifically comment on the upright-seating proposal.

There is no legal barrier to installing standing-room seats on an American 
airliner. The Federal Aviation Administration does not mandate that a 
passenger be in a sitting position for takeoffs and landings; only that the 
passenger be secured. Seating must comply only with the agency's rules on 
the width of aisles and the ability to evacuate quickly in an emergency.

The Air Transport Association, the trade association for the airline 
industry in the United States, does not have any seat-comfort standards. 
Nor does it issue any recommendations to its members regarding seating 
configurations.

The two Asian airlines seen as the most likely to buy a large plane for 
short-haul flights, All Nippon Airways and Japan Airlines, are lukewarm 
about the Airbus plan.

"Airbus had talked with us about an 800-seat configuration for domestic 
flights," said Rob Henderson, a spokesman for All Nippon Airways. "It does 
not fit with our present plans going forward."

A spokesman for Japan Airlines, Geoffrey Tudor, said Airbus had presented 
its ideas for using the A380 on short-haul flights, but added, "We have no 
interest in increasing seat capacity to this level."

Boeing is under similar pressure to squeeze more seats onto its newest 
aircraft, the midsize Boeing 787. Some airlines are planning to space the 
seats just 30 inches apart from front to back, or about one inch less than 
the current average.

And rather than installing eight seats across the two aisles, which would 
afford passengers additional elbow room, more than half of Boeing's airline 
customers have opted for a nine-abreast configuration in the main cabin, 
said Blake Emery, a marketing director at Boeing. Even so, he said, "It 
will still be as comfortable as any economy-class section today."

Indeed, it is possible to have it both ways: more comfortable seats that 
are also more compact. For example, the latest economy-class seat from B/E 
Aerospace, called the ICON, allows the seat bottom to move forward when the 
seat is reclined, so that it does not steal legroom from the passenger 
behind it. It also incorporates better ergonomic designs now typically 
found in the business-class cabin.

But the ICON and similar seats can cost up to three times more than the 
$1,200 that a standard coach seat costs. That may make them unaffordable to 
all but a few international airlines that would use the seats on long-haul 
routes, the experts said.

Some frequent fliers, asked about the slimmer seats, said they feared that 
the result would be tighter quarters. Some expressed concerns about sharing 
a cabin with even more passengers and increasing the risk of contracting a 
communicable disease.

Others were worried about even more passengers sharing the already-tight 
overhead bin space.

"It seems like every year there is less room for my long legs," said Bud 
Johnson, who is a frequent traveler for a military contractor in 
Scottsdale, Ariz. "I'm afraid that's going to continue."

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