People are fighting on airplanes because seats are too small.
The seats are not too small because airlines are forcing passengers to fly on small seats.
They are too small because most passengers do not insist on larger seats—they are willing to fly without them—but at the same time most passengers find the way they are packed into airplanes intolerable.
There can be two explanations. The first is that passengers are in denial about their own preferences. They say they hate being packed in, but they still fly packed in, which means they can’t really hate it that much.
The second is that people don’t do a good job of protecting their own dignity. They would never, ever, let a guy come up to them on the street and rub their forearm and thigh for two hours. But it turns out that’s just because they don’t get anything out of the bargain. When that visit to grandma is at stake, by contrast, they acquiesce. People make deals with the devil all the time. They indenture themselves. They abase, and grovel, and beg, and they do it all for things, like getting home for the holidays.
The question is, then: should we respect them when they don’t respect themselves?
The airline seat size question gets to the heart of consumer sovereigntist market ideology.
What could possibly be wrong about letting consumers decide for themselves what they want out of air travel?
That was the question that destroyed the Civil Aeronautics Board, the federal agency that once ran the American airline industry, dictating the number of airlines in the market, the prices that airlines could charge, and, indirectly, the quality of service that they could provide. Before the Carter Administration killed the CAB, it was piano bars all the way up.
In the small seat you have your answer to the question.
The mob voted, overwhelmingly, for cheap at any cost, including to their own dignity.
In a world in which the only value is the democratic value, in which all that matters is what the people want, you are stuck here. You must leave the airlines to torture their passengers; they accept abuse.
If instead you believe in your heart that government should do something about it, that there should be a federally-mandated larger minimum seat size, then you must accept that you are not, in fact a democrat. Not really.
Passengers have voted, already. They prefer cheap. And they have voted far, far more directly than they will have if some elected representative, who ran on a dozen other issues not involving airlines, happens to vote in their name for a larger minimum. Whatever minimum is imposed will drive up the price of a seat, and whether passengers pay the higher prices or not (I think they will), four decades of consumer voting in deregulated airline markets says that they do not actually prefer to pay it.
If you want to impose a minimum seat size, you must accept that you worship at a different altar from that of democracy. Perhaps you worship at the altar of human dignity—of the human form divine. But you must accept what that makes you: a paternalist, a scold, a schoolmarm.
Do not tell me that you think we need minimum seat sizes to forestall violence, that the skies have become a battleground and that is unsafe. For anyone who has suffered through two hours in a packed plane knows just what primeval brain centers are thereby stimulated. But they fly anyway, and when they do, they always go for the cheapest tickets! They accept the risk.
One way out of this cul-de-sac is to say that there is not, in fact, any tradeoff between price and seat size: passengers want bigger seats at the same prices (who wouldn’t?) and airlines could give them to passengers, but they don’t because they have monopoly power.
This helps because it means that passengers aren’t choosing smaller seats—smaller seats are being forced on them.
It follows immediately that if someone is going to do some forcing, it might as well be the government, which can act as medium, divine what consumers would want (larger seats), and dictate them.
While there is almost certainly some power there, seat size hasn’t fallen by half since deregulation, whereas prices have. That’s hard to square with a narrative of oppression.
And anyway, even a monopolist can’t make a passenger accept a smaller seat if the passenger won’t accept a smaller seat; the problem here is that consumer demand is extraordinarily inelastic in price—inelastic unto indignity.
In other words, the demand curve, of a self-respecting public, for today’s super small economy class airplane seats should look like this:
Instead, it looks like this:
It is sometimes said that flying was better under regulation because, by setting fares, the CAB forced airlines to compete on quality. But that absolves the passenger of too much. It would be better to say that in setting fares, the CAB prevented consumers from cheerfully trading away their dignity for a discount.
Passengers want lower fares; airlines need to pack in more seats to provide them (whether that need is driven by a need to earn a monopoly profit or not); and airlines oblige.
Should the airlines not offer passengers this devil’s bargain? We have told them: serve you.
And they do.
In the old days, prices were higher, fewer people flew, and flying was dignified.
That was not a democratic world.
But it was better.