What Air Canada has just inflicted on its passengers with new tight fit seating for long haul economy passengers isn't wrong, or unusual. But in a stand out airline when it came to courtesy and comfort, it is a crying shame.
There is a very awkward contest in play in the Air Canada decision, and that of many other carriers.
This is the contest between the upsizing of humans as a result of better nutrition and health care, which is running kneecaps first into ever decreasing seat sizes determined by the algorithms managements apply to the available revenue per unit of distance, which comes from dividing operating costs per hour of an airliner by the number of seats that can be legally crammed into it.
The really awesomely bad news in this is that the legal load limits of most international airliners, as determined by emergency evacuation criteria that have to be met for type certification to be granted, are rarely approached by even the most uncomfortable configurations now flying, such as the 377 seats in an AirAsiaX A330, which could theoretically fly with 440 even tinier seats and minimised lavatories and galleys.
And there are other factors. The days of airlines being able to make most of their money out of premium fares seem to be drawing shorter. The rise of affordable discretionary air travel, which has been facilitated by the cost reductions of higher density seating formats as well as growth in average spending power, has been proportionately greater than the increase in business travel activity.
Multiply the seats at premium fares in many airline configurations and compare the total revenue available to that of the economy seats on the same flight and it is usually the case that the flight, if full, would make most of its money from the back of the plane than the front, or the upper level, depending on the airliner in question.
And business travel no longer necessarily means a business class seat. If often means an economy class seat at a higher than discount fare which allows for better timed flights and more flexible ticketing conditions, and if one is indulged, something better than a biscuit or mystery protein object served up in a self wrap garbage bag.
This rise of the hard nosed approach to business travel by many government departments and corporations around the world has worked against anything resembling comfortable travel as airlines succumb to the pack-em-in tendency, including into pseudo business class confinements like those flown on intra-European routes by so called full service carriers.
Price is king in corporate as well as discretionary travel, and especially so in so called managed travel accounts, where a large enterprise, such as major retailer or bank, will do its best to screw the airline back when it comes to trading its custom for price.
There are many voices in this situation that pontificate about cheapskates getting what they pay for. Sometimes those voices are right. But sometimes airlines exploit that situation to downgrade the flying experience but not the fare, citing cost pressures, but also exaggerating them, since they can say whatever they like and keep the nitty gritty figures to themselves as commercial-in-confidence.
Air Canada’s reduction of seat pitch in long haul economy in a 777 to within 5cms of what is legal in a Ryanair 737-800 is painful when comparing a typical seven to 15 hour sector on its network with a 60-150 minute flight on an intra-European flight.
But Air Canada isn’t alone. And in the brutal economics of airline operations in general, it probably isn’t wrong. It is just a crying shame.
Ben Sandilands has reported and analysed the mechanical mobility of humanity since late 1960 - the end of the age of great scheduled ocean liners and coastal steamers and the start of the jet age. He’s worked in newspapers, radio and TV in a wide range of roles as a journalist at home and abroad for 56 years, the last 18 freelance.