ATW Editor's Blog

Airline seat size, ancillaries and washing machines

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A US House bill has tagged a worrisome provision to the FAA reauthorization bill that would essentially regulate the size and spacing of seats on US carriers.

As reported here by my colleague Ben Goldstein, the bill would instruct FAA to establish minimum dimensions for passenger seats on aircraft operated by carriers flying within the US. The rules would include minimums for seat pitch, width and length that lawmakers say are necessary for the safety and health of passengers.

The “safety” part, at least, is questionable. FAA says there is no evidence that higher-capacity seat configurations would prevent passengers from evacuating in an emergency within the required minimum times. Typically, this means demonstrating that everyone on board gets out of the aircraft in three minutes or less, even with the exits on one side of the aircraft being blocked or inaccessible.

Any attempt to re-regulate the industry is concerning, especially when it infringes on product areas that should be left to market forces. US airlines do have seat widths and pitches that differ from each other as well as different products within their own cabins. The classic example of this is the relatively new “economy plus” cabins that allow customers to purchase more legroom without having to pay a full first- or business-cabin fare. Regulating the seat-size end of the business could lead to those options no longer being viable…so those passengers who are willing to pay more for legroom would lose their customer choice, while those passengers who want the lowest fare possible would likely see a hike in basic ticket prices. Where’s the customer benefit in that?

It must also be pointed out that a seat-size law for US carriers could put them at a competitive disadvantage against their non-US rivals. This is why regulatory interference makes for good political soundbites, but ends up creating bad law.

Airline ancillary fees are another area that lawmakers have scrutinized and threated to regulate. But again, most airline passengers want the lowest fare possible—and that baseline will go up if it automatically includes a preferred seat (such as an exit or aisle) and a checked bag (which many travelers don’t want or need). So market regulation would take away what is probably the single-most popular option that customers want: the cheapest possible ticket.

But what about washing machines? This past weekend, I had the miserable task of going to three large appliance stores to purchase a washer and a dryer. What I found was that all three stores had prices for my washer-dryer of choice that were within $10 of each other and the total—flagged in large, bold type—came out to just shy of $1,000. But when it came to ordering the appliances, each supplier started to tag on additional stuff that was essential to get those machines to my house and working, but which was not displayed in the store price. And each “extra” was about $25. This included an electric cord—for electric appliances! By the time these extras and taxes (taxes also were not included in the store sign price, whereas US airlines have to incorporate taxes and government fees in their fares), some $150 had been added to the price of the washer and dryer. Most annoying of all, all three stores added a $25 fee for a duct, which they explained might not be necessary for installation. But they insist on selling it to the customer on the off chance it might be needed. If not, the customer is responsible for getting it back to the store and claiming a refund.

An aisle seat or checked bag ancillary fee is something I’d buy because I plan to use it. These stores compel me to buy an appliance ancillary I may not need.

Where are the congressmen and women who are standing up for more regulation over the fraudulent electric appliance industry? End this whitewash now!

Karen Walker karen.walker@informa.com

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