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Why U.S. Flyers Are the World’s Most Uncomfortable

Why U.S. Flyers Are the World’s Most Uncomfortable

You may have noticed: Americans seem to kvetch more loudly and more often than travelers from other countries. Are we just a bunch of spoiled whiners?

We may indeed be spoiled whiners, but we do have at least one compelling reason to be unhappy with the travel experience: We’re flying on fuller planes.

The latest passenger-traffic report from the International Air Transport Association confirms that U.S. domestic flights on average flew 83.8 percent full during 2013, the highest load factor of any country’s flights tracked by IATA.

Second to the U.S. was China, where load factor for the year reached 80.3 percent. Next was Australia, at 76.5 percent, followed closely by Brazil at 76.3 percent. India was at 74.6 percent, Russia at 74.0, and Japan at 64.3.

The airlines love high load factors. They show that their aircraft are being used efficiently, and that supply (of seats) is properly aligned with demand (for travel).

But for flyers, high load factors translate directly into discomfort. That’s especially true in coach, where legroom has decreased by 10 percent over the past two decades.

The combination of packed flights and jammed-together seats is a toxic one. IATA itself has called attention to the increase in air rage incidents, although its proposed solution — more authority for pilots and cabin crew — failed to address the problem’s root cause.

Until U.S. airlines reconfigure their planes to ameliorate the claustrophobia and discomfort caused by chronically full flights, American flyers will have a legit reason to whine. That means a couple extra inches of legroom in coach. And yes, that means a few fewer seats to sell. But it’s the right thing to do.

Reader Reality Check

Feel free to whine. You have every reason to.

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  • LaoShu

    Maybe it’s because the average American is 2 x the weight of an average Chinese ?

  • Helen S

    Yes, the average American is taller, bigger boned, and, face it, fatter than most other countries. We want rock-bottom prices, then complain about bare-bones amenities. I accept the terms of Economy travel, including minimal personal space in exchange for low prices. I empathize with anyone who hasn’t flown recently and is crammed into tiny seats, but most flyers know the score. I actually fit in Economy seats, as long as a larger seatmate doesn’t encroach on my space. It you don’t fit in the seats, then pay a little extra for Economy Comfort. It’s only fair to pay for your space instead of expecting to take it from a smaller seatmate.

  • peterknight

    This is one of the most illogical argument that is being propagated. Pay extra if you don’t like coach. To pay extra means one has to pay 2-10 times, which few passengers can afford. If they could afford it why would they even get in to coach? A better solution would be to increase fares by 10% and in turn provide more legroom and wider seats. But then again, Americans like to complain, but not enough to force changes.

  • MadLibertarian

    Then don’t fly, flying is a privilege, not a right. If people don’t like what they are paying for, they are more then welcome to take a car, train, bus, or boat to their destination.

  • Nick Knight

    American owned airlines, also just have horrible service. I avoid them at all cost.

  • emcampbe

    Sorry…don’t buy into this. You throw up a chart with load factors, then leap to the conclusion that US flyers are the most uncomfortable. Could be true, sure, but the data you list doesn’t support this – did you actually do any research into the conclusion you drew? Put together a list of the average seat pitch in planes in the countries listed above (or others)? Gasp….use a survey of actual passengers to see how they rated their comfort level?

    Other items, like legroom decreasing by 10 percent, may very well be true. and putting together a proper study may conclude that Americans are indeed the most uncomfortable passengers. But stating it without any evidence to back it up doesn’t make it true.

    Let’s also not forget something else – Many Americans like whining about everything with air travel – service, legroom and delays (even when those delays are caused by weather – I’ve watched some travelers get quite upset at agents when weather delays flights – and are probably some of the ones who…hmm, complain about bad service). But they also whine about pricing. Many travelers choose the airline solely based on price – a $1 difference can be the sole factor that gets one airline a sale over another. When that happens – the airlines are going to do all they can to earn more revenue – including putting more seats in planes. So let’s not pretend this is all the fault of the airlines. Passengers demanded a lower price, and along with that, unfortunately, got more than they bargained for.

  • semsem5

    Thank God for JETBLUE and SOUTHWEST that still give decent legroom. I avoid the others.

  • semsem5

    On international flights apart from the lousy legroom the food the US airlines serve in Y sucks.

    I avoid at all cost.

    Domestically I only fly JetBlue or Southwest if I can for the decent legroom.

  • Josh Davis

    This is pretty much the same argument as Helen S, which is essentially that comfort comes at a price.

    If a carrier flew with 50% more legroom, with a commensurate drop in the number of passengers, their fares would presumably be more expensive. Consumers would therefore vote with their feet. Popularity of budget carriers suggests this is not likely to succeed…

  • maxpower212

    The planes can be 100% full, for all I care, as long as the seats are big enough. I don’t see how a fully loaded plane, in and of itself, would make me uncomfortable.

  • maxpower212

    This is irrelevant to this article. Chinese planes are in second place in terms of seats occupied.

  • peterknight

    I am not talking about 50% more legroom. 5% is more than enough. (31″ + 1.5″= 32.5 “) That doesn’t translate to a major loss for the airlines. I am sure a 5% increase most people can afford.

  • peterknight

    Really? Wow, that’s a profound argument.

  • Callum Green

    I can afford a 5% increase. I will not however pay a 5% increase if I don’t have to.

    Unless you have some unique insight that no-one else can see, surely if it was so obvious people would pay 5% extra for 5% more room, the airlines would do it?

  • briandear

    However, when US taxpayer money is used to bail out airlines that, from their own mismanagement (a lack of intelligent fuel-hedging comes to mind) then the American taxpayer does get a say. When taxes and fees can approach 50% of the fare price, then we also have some room to gripe as well because, if the taxes and government fees were at, say the average rate of sales tax (perhaps 7-10%) then that would provide additional revenue to the airlines, thus reducing their need to have such high load factors to remain (or attempt to be) profitable. This “negative subsidy” of heavily taxing air travel, compared to many European and Asian countries, where the aviation industry is actually subsidized (though passengers still pay high taxes on tickets) is one of the causes for the high load factors. I don’t advocate subsidizing private business, however, a reducing the extreme tax burden on a passenger and airlines would give the American aviation industry more breathing room to operate. Make the tax situation fair. Buses, for example aren’t subject to a federal excise tax. Amtrak isn’t either (and Amtrak is even government subsidized!) Just looking at the fuel taxes that an airline must pay, combined with the taxes the passengers must pay — it’s not the airline’s fault they must resort to dense loading — it’s the government’s fault. High taxes crush business (and individuals.)

  • briandear

    Cut the airline taxes by 5%. Problem solved.

  • briandear

    I agree. I don’t usually walk around the plane sitting in empty seats. However service is a big one. For example, after a cancellation, who handles it best. Do you get charged for every aspect. Do they squeeze you if a bag is .5lbs overweight when your other bag is 10lbs, underweight. Can they load the plane quickly? I’ve flown a lot of China airlines and I say that I’d prefer US carriers any day of the week. However, comparing Delta to Air France or American Airlines to Singapore — there’s a big difference in the small details. I’ve had great flights on United and terrible flights as well, but on the whole, I’ve always found that the European and Asian non-budget carriers typically have a slightly higher standard of service, but that’s just me.

  • LaoShu

    It is relevant.. The taller and heavier one is .. the more uncomfortable the little space is.. :-)

  • peterknight

    You don’t have to if you are comfortable in the cattle class. And as far your second point there are plenty of articles about American corporation’s behaviour in logical decision making. I would have to write a complete thesis on that. LOL

  • peterknight

    Thanks for the laugh. You really think that they would pass on the savings?

  • briandear

    Actually they either would, because of something called ‘competition’ or they wouldn’t and would thus have less bottom line pressure to maintain high load factors. I would rather private business have the extra money rather than the government, since taxes are highly inefficient. The 5% goes further in the pocket of private business than it does in the US treasury. That’s a fact. See the utter failure of Keyenesian economics for proof.

  • Marcie

    Flying on any of the US airlines is equivalent to a punishment.
    The prices have doubled in the last 2 years
    if you cannot book well in advance all one
    subjected to no service, bad attitide and extreme discomfort.
    I avoid flying in the US as much as possible.

  • malbarda

    Fuller planes, more seats, smaller seats: it is all well documented. http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304384104579141941949066648

    But as many have said, people vote with their wallet and then complain afterwards.

    As a non-American American, I can tell you that people in Europe complain just as much about seat size and comfort, especially on intra-European flights.

  • KiwiRob

    Pretty simple Americans are the worlds fattest flyers, how is this even a topic worth thinking about?

  • KiwiRob

    Why punish those who aren’t fat and require extra wide seats? The only way to make seats wider on a 737 or A320 sized plane to to remove a row and go down to 5 rows, that would considerably increase the price of tickets.

  • dsliesse

    I’m a little taller than average, but can live with the lack of legroom (as long as the cretin in front of me doesn’t recline into my lap — I’ve never understood how anybody can be uncomfortable reclined so much in the first place!). My problem is with seat width. I can do something about the size of my middle, but my shoulder span is fixed and is my limiting factor. I end most flights with a sore back from having to twist it so much to be comfortable.

    Most forumites aren’t old enough to remember that in the 60s UA did have three classes of service — First, Standard, and Coach (also Economy on selected flights, but that was just Coach seating with no service). Standard was 2+3 seating, usually 4 rows, available in DC-8s and 720s. That sort of arrangement now would suit me just fine (assuming it were priced appropriately — I’m willing to pay for value, but the domestic first class product is not worth the premium that’s charged for it).