A passenger revolt against squashed legroom

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Of the litany of annoyances pestering air travellers these days—the invasive security protocols, the baggage fees, the cancellations and delays—perhaps none ranks higher than the Incredible Shrinking Airplane Seat. Legroom seems to vanish with each passing flight. The marginally roomier exit-row seats now cost extra; so do the seats where spaciousness was until recently considered normal but now earns the label “premium economy.” Aeroplane designers recently took their efforts to pack passengers in like sardines to a whole new level, with a proposal to squeeze in more seats by facing half of them backwards.

It’s enough to make you—well, sign a petition. As of September 9th, more than 31,000 people had done so.

FlyersRights.org, which claims to be the largest non-profit airline consumer organisation, has drafted a petition to the American Congress demanding certain passenger protections. Most notable among them: The government must “protect passenger safety by mandating minimum seat pitch standards to preclude ingress/egress and health issues.” The campaign is a longshot. As this newspaper wrote earlier this year, “Given a choice, air travellers always say they want more room and extra comfort, but are usually not prepared to pay any more money for them—or at least not a lot more.” You might swear you’re never going to fly on a given airline again. But come booking time, most people won't spend the extra $100 to avoid it. For those willing to fork out for a marginal bit of comfort, airlines are rapidly installing those newly labelled premium-economy seats for travellers who can’t afford the upgrade to first class, but can just about pay for a few extra inches of legroom to separate them from cattle class.

Paul Hudson, the president of FlyersRights, thinks a passenger backlash is brewing and claims his organisation has 60,000 members. But if Congress takes up any of his recommendations—which also include higher compensation for involuntary “bumping” and refunded baggage fees for lost or delayed luggage—Mr Hudson and his allies will be up against the formidable airline industry. Add to that the fact that many passengers have demonstrated a willingness to tolerate dismal conditions if it means a cheap ticket, and FlyersRights has a tough case to make.

The airline lobbying group, Airlines for America, told The Hill newspaper that the regulations the petition calls for would represent gratuitous federal interference. But Mr Hudson believes the time is right. “You reach a certain point of fed up-ness,” he says, “and I think with the seats you’re getting there.”

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