Associating purple mood lighting with pain in a plane may seem perverse in this 787

If the view is taken that a business model that involves deliberately hurting and humiliating adult sized passengers is ultimately bad for air travel then a report in the South China Morning Post about Cathay Pacific’s thoughts on smaller seats in 777s is rather bad news.

The story is authoritative, although it remains unclear as to whether it was something the Hong Kong airline would like to see flagged in order to gauge the public reaction.

What needs to be said is that if the same cost per seat kilometre argument is applied to the rest of its fleet, Cathay Pacific will also have its Airbus A330s flying in the horrid nine across seating found in AirAsia X for example, and ruin its forthcoming A350s with ten across economy seats, making them just as stuffy as a Boeing 787 Dreamliner at nine across, and worse than the possible 10 across plan in the wider cross section of a 777.

At the moment, the stand out jet for economy class comfort long haul is the Airbus A380, however ultimately this logic of really screwing the metric for seat times distance costs would see those jets being converted to an 11 across economy format on the main deck, no doubt for the sake of ‘product harmonisation’ for operators like Emirates who has a large fleet of 777s and A380s.

This logic of pain has also been visited on shorter haul passengers in Europe, where British Airways and Lufthansa for example have reduced the seat pitch in their premium cabins in single aisle jets to the same degree of discomfort as the rest of those jets, and other operators have taken their pursuit of better metrics as far as making the toilets fewer in number and in some cases, so tight most passengers couldn’t wipe their arses.

Is there a contrary case in favor of airlines giving us the smallest and most inconvenient seats and toilets in the history of the jet age?

Unfortunately there is. Despite the current reprieve from high fuel costs, aggressive competition is all but universal across the western and much of the eastern hemisphere, and competition requires airlines to efficiently allocate resources, use them better, and deny the mantle of cheapest fare to rivals.

We have, to paraphrase many reasonable analysts, only ourselves to blame.

But let’s consider where this could be going. Take the Qantas 787-9s for instance. If Qantas does the logical thing and says “Me too” when it becomes the last airline to fly the Dreamliner on Australian routes, with nine across seats in economy, how can it differentiate its offer on those jets from the same tight seating on a Jetstar 787?

If your legs suffer from bone pain for hours on end no amount of better food and drink is going to be worth $$$ more than a Jetstar or Scoot or Air Canada 787 over similar routes, especially as you won’t be able to clean up after yourself in the dinky little toilet.

The problem for Qantas, as well as Cathay Pacific, and other high reputation full service carriers will be that of differentiation. If the experience is going to be bad, why not just go for the cheapest price and be done with it?

True, you could pay multiples of the cheapest fare to fly various premium economy or business class options, but the brand value of these roomy cabins also relies on their not being products of mass travel. Airlines are unlikely to decide to offer vastly more premium quality seats if they have to expand their lounges threefold in size, or find that they have actually damaged the appeal of those seats to those who now buy them.

As each generation of travellers grows up to become slightly larger than their parents, and each iteration of airliner cabins because even more insufferably stuffy, the desirability or ‘cachet’ of air travel risks being broken or degraded.

People may decide to fly much less, while in some cases trading up to more comfort. No matter how good the metrics of an 198 seat 737 MAX 200 or 436 seat A330 may be, if they never fill the last 18 or say 86 seats respectively, the theoretical exercise in hurting customers to improve earnings comes unstuck, badly.

But by then the notion of Qantas or Cathay Pacific as being ‘quality’ flying experiences will be dead, and an entirely different, and no doubt quite difficult rebuilding of the concept of air travel will challenge whatever the airlines of the future might be called.

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