Harrop: The smallness of being in economy class

This Sunday, June 29, 2014 photo provided by This Sunday, June 29, 2014 photo provided by Michael Schroeder shows an emergency chute after it inflated inside a United Airlines plane as it flew from Chicago to California. Photo Credit: AP Photo/Michael Schroeder

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Americans are in the dumps about their future. What does that have to do with legroom in economy class? Everything.

The middle class sees its stature shrinking in the global pecking order and in a culture that favors money over well-being. There can be no better example for this than the indignities of flying economy.

Surely, you heard about the United Airlines flight from Newark to Denver that was diverted to Chicago after two passengers got into a fight over legroom. A man had deployed a "knee defender," an obnoxious device that prevents the seat in front from reclining. Several airlines, United included, ban it, but the man refused to remove it. The woman sitting in front of him threw a cup of water at him. Both were thrown off the plane in Chicago.

Surveyed air travelers say crammed leg space bothers them more than the extra fees and delays. So you'd think our free enterprise system would offer roomier alternatives. There are market solutions: Many airlines sell enhanced space for 30-odd bucks more.

But Wall Street rewards airlines that shoehorn the most passengers into the smallest areas. The industry calls this "densification."

Ben Baldanza, the chief executive of no-frills Spirit Airlines, offers this advice: "You don't get a Mercedes S-class for a Ford Fusion price. If you want more legroom, go pay for it at another airline." Fair enough. And stuffing people in has helped Spirit chalk the industry's highest profit margins. Investors, meanwhile, have punished airlines that give more space, such as JetBlue.

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So why aren't the masses taking Baldanza's advice and fleeing to his competitors?

The answer is that Americans are trained to buy on the basis of price. Go ask for flight information on Expedia.com. Up comes a list of options that one can sort by departure time, arrival time, duration or price. The default is "price."

Nowhere are there data on breathing room or other niceties. Yet if personal space matters more to many travelers than the lowest price, why isn't that information part of the sorting process?

Back in the "Mad Men" era, airlines bragged about their level of service, from meals on trays to luxurious seating. Airline deregulation started the decline of such amenities. One of its goals was to encourage cheaper seats, and that it did. But the shrinking of comfort levels accelerated later. It happened without a middle-class revolt, partly because our culture has dropped quality as a major factor in making a purchase.

No wonder ordinary Americans are feeling physically big and socially small in air travel. Fortunately, the solution is in their hands.

Froma Harrop on Twitter is a syndicated columnist.

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