America’s airlines are the world’s most profitable and least comfortable

Don’t even think about it.
Don’t even think about it.
Image: Reuters/Tobias Schwarz
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Buried within the American World Airline Awards, touchstone rankings for the airline industry doled out at the Farnborough International Airshow this week, is a trend America’s coach class travelers may find vindicating: among the ranks of global airlines, their nation’s airlines boast the world’s most uncomfortable seats.

The awards, compiled by the UK-based air travel ratings and reviews consultancy Skytrax, rank everything from best overall airline to best cabin crew based on passenger feedback. Asian and Middle Eastern airlines dominated this year’s awards in most ranked categories, with European airlines occasionally making their way onto its top-10 lists.

Western airlines, especially American ones, fared particularly poorly in the category of “best airline seat.” Not a single European or American airline made it into the top 10 for regular old economy seating, while American carriers didn’t make it into any top-10 seating class category (first class, business class, premium economy, or economy). A few European carriers, including British Airways and Air France, made the top rankings for premium economy class, but they dropped off the lists for first class and business class rankings.

Image: SkyTrax

The poor American performance should be no surprise to the airlines themselves. There’s been a deliberate effort in recent years, especially by American carriers, to make life on an airplane as miserable as possible. The strategy of cultivating loyalty by offering free upgrades has been replaced by one that charges customers for the privilege of comfort. The passenger who gets stuck sitting between a screaming baby and a sick person is more likely to pay extra to take refuge in an aisle, an exit row or a new seating category such as ”economy plus” or ”comfort economy.”

Meanwhile, many American carriers have removed their first-class categories to make room for souped-up business class sections that boast luxurious amenities like flat beds. Accommodating those loungers requires squeezing more coach passengers into economy.

All that seat-shuffling has paid off for American airlines, which recently surpassed Asian and European carriers like Singapore Airlines and Lufthansa as the world’s most profitable commercial carriers. Airlines worldwide racked up $13.5 billion in revenue from non-ticket fees last year, according to a new survey, more than 11 times non-ticket revenue six years ago. After struggling through bankruptcies, mergers and fuel shocks, US carriers are now swimming in revenues from checked baggage fees, headphone and snack sales and, more recently, seat assignments and upgrades. As they try to maintain that status, rest assured, the seating scourge is only going to get worse.

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