Economy class in an Emirates A380

Nothing provokes more discussion on many of the air travel sites or boards than seating, and for the most part, it is the shrinking of vital dimensions like width and legroom that drives the comments even more than the performance or availability of an internet connection.

The language of these discussions is also almost always hostile in tone. But is there room for a different, and more frank approach in the marketing of ‘affordable’ fares?

What if airlines said something like ‘we are taking away amenity to keep fares the same, if not lower’?

If that sounds unlikely it could be time to revisit the pitch made by earlier low cost airfare proponents. When Richard Branson and Brett Godfrey turned up late in 1999 to announce their then unnamed discount domestic airline plan for Australia, SRB emphasised that significant inclusions in the Ansett or Australian Airlines fares were for meals or other frills like baggage allowances or generous waivers on last minute reservation changes.

There was a clear signal that Branson thought the ‘guest’ should only pay for what he or she wanted, which was an affordable seat, although I can’t find him actually using the words ‘guest’ nor ‘legroom’ at that stage.

But stripping down air travel to the essentials, and enfranchising new customers with lower fares, was what it was all about. As it was when Qantas responded with Project Savior and Jetstar, with its entry into service in 2004.

Fast forward to the present. There has been massive growth driven by new demand for air travel by lower fares, and higher disposable incomes, aided in no small measure by improvements in the cost efficiency of engine, airframe and maintenance designs and procedures, despite volatile fuel prices.

Even the selling of a fare has become much cheaper because of booking apps. But the angry flyer level as also risen, since people aren’t getting smaller, but in most cases, the seats are!

This anger is captured, and given even handed discussion, in this detailed recent Bloomberg report. The proprietary graphics in the Bloomberg article are outstanding, and the commentary about safety concerns in the event of an emergency evacuation of a cabin, and the real chances of US regulation of new seating standards are highly relevant to other jurisdictions like Australia.

(In case the link expires, the headline is The Incredible Shrinking Airline Seat and the top of copy summary reads “The industry has been squeezing you for years. But competition and the courts may soon provide relief.”)

There are several observations about marketing and likely developments that could be drawn from the Bloomberg story. One is that more candor on the part of airline marketing might help.

As in, ‘this is going to be uncomfortable, but it serves a purpose’. But it also shows up the risk that as the mass of air fares fall (or remain static) the gap between premium cabin offers and the ‘street’ fare will encourage business as well as leisure passengers to try and put up with the ‘misery’.

If anything is going to gut the availability of premium alternatives to basic economy fares it may turn out to be the punitive costs to airlines of flying half empty premium seating around their networks outside of peak demand periods.

This can, indeed arguably already has, diminished standards in some premium cabins in airlines in general. The slippery slope of ‘affordable premium service’ appears alongside that of ‘affordable basic service.’¬† Where the air space and airport capacity exists, the highest tier of air service quality migrates into corporate jets, including the newest designs¬† that can cruise at 50,000 feet, do Melbourne-Los Angeles non-stop in four to eight place luxury concoon configurations, and push mach 0.89 for a range/speed trade off. And fly when you want to fly, not when a schedule says you will fly.

Being blunt about why flying is less amenable than ever for most people won’t defuse the anger completely. There are plausible safety and health concerns about ‘inhumane’ seating. But perhaps at last it might occur to some airline managements that having unbeatable per seat per unit of distance metrics might turn to sand between their fingers if they never sell the extra inventory, because no-one can fit into them, or can continue to get a better offer elsewhere.

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