Airline deregulation put the squeeze on passengers

WASHINGTON-The Wright brothers’ first flight took place on Dec. 7, 1903, but it

was not until after World War II that the commercial airline industry truly

took off.

At first, air travel was strictly controlled, regulated and

costly. Then, in 1978, the United States government deregulated the airline

industry in an effort to promote competition between airlines, which would

produce lower air fares for passengers.

At that time, approximately 235

million people were flying annually. In 1996, that number increased to 580

million. In 1998, the number rose to 626 million annually. And the Federal

Aviation Administration predicts that by the year 2010, the industry will have

to service nearly 1 billion customers.

Yet, while some experts argue that

deregulation has greatly benefitted consumers, many say that the airline

industry has a long way to go. Flying today seems to be less comfortable than

it was in the past. Not only does there seem to be less leg room, but

passengers have to wait through more delays, cancellations and overbookings.

The average airline seat in coach class today has only 31 to 32 inches between

it and the seat in front of it. These chairs can recline four to six inches,

which invades the personal space of the person in the back. As one customer

puts it, “What airlines don’t realize is that the seat space is not just

the seat you sit in, but the space around you. For the price of a ticket, you

should expect a minimum comfort zone.”

That space has shrunk. In

1990, the average space between seats was 34 to 36 inches. The seats themselves

have gotten smaller, as well. A “Consumer Reports Travel Letter”

stated that coach and economy class seats have narrowed in the last 30 years.

In 1977, an average Boeing 747 had nine seats across. The same 747 today has 10

seats across. DC-10s and L-1011s have increased their seating capacity in the

same way.

Responding to increased complaints from passengers, some

airlines in February of this year promised to expand the space allotted each

seat. American Airlines said it would refit some 700 planes, giving coach

passengers 33 to 36 inches of leg room, reducing the planes’ seating capacity

by 6.4 percent. United Airlines has created an Economy Plus section on their

planes, where passengers have 35 to 36 inches of leg room.


and discomforts have caused passengers to react badly. Air travelers are less

polite and more inconsiderate of each other. Flight attendants are seeing more


“Everything has deteriorated,” said one flight

attendant. And the crew of the planes often has to serve as mediators for upset


Many people credit the poor service given by airlines to the

lack of competition in the industry. The Department of Transportation has

reported that out of 18,717 domestic flights with daily service, about

one-third are controlled by a single carrier. And this lack of competition is

the irony of deregulation.


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