Why you should be glad to sit in the middle seat

The next time you’re about to kvetch about the passenger seated next to you, don’t.
The next time you’re about to kvetch about the passenger seated next to you, don’t.
Image: Reuters/Phil Noble
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First of all, there never was a glamour age of air travel. Second of all, get over it. It’s the right thing for society.

Let’s get the myths out of the way first. When we talk about how great air travel used to be, are we talking about my childhood in the 1970s and 1980s, when roving bands of Hare Krishnas marauded passengers in smoke-filled terminals? Next to the gate for the Eastern Air Shuttle, there was a kiosk that sold last-minute life insurance in case you lost your nerve. To board that noisy DC-9 or 727, you schlepped your bags across the tarmac and up the air stairs, snow or shine.

Or perhaps we mean the great decades before. Until the early 1960s, it took 11 hours to cross the country in a Super Constellation, all four propellers buzzing the whole way, except during the fuel stop. When The Movie—there was only one—came onboard in 1961, it was delivered through pneumatic rubber earphones that snaked their way into the 1980s. Glamorous.

But mythologizing aside, there is one real difference between today and yesteryear: the middle seat. Or at least the likeliness that you or someone else will be sitting in it.

After the basics like getting to where you’re going in a timely fashion, the single greatest determinant of passenger satisfaction is whether there is an empty seat next to you. Whereas other mammals eagerly snuggle together for comfort, human beings tend to do everything we can to avoid getting close to another human. One study of passengers on the New York Subway found that even when there were 20% more people than seats, 10% of the seats rode empty. Air travel makes us cozy up to each other, and we don’t like it.

During those so-called glory days of aviation, the system was so inefficient that close to half the seats flew empty. Since the middle seats don’t fill until the flight is around 70% full on most aircraft, a majority of passengers got to enjoy glorious open space at their elbow. In the US today, by contrast, approximately 84% of the seats are full, and you’re more likely to be on one of the full flights. That means you have a neighbor.

The big change since the glory days is that we have made air travel more accessible to more people. According to a recent Ipsos survey by the Air Transport Association, almost 90% of Americans have flown in their lifetimes, up from close to 70% in 1990. Approximately half of Americans have taken a plane trip in the last year, up from just 30% in 1990.

That’s principally a matter of affordability. In 1990, when the average one-way airfare was $260 (in today’s dollars), it took the median household 1-1/4 days of work to buy a plane ticket. Today, that figure is down to just six hours of work for a ticket that costs $172.

Along the way, air travel has also become quieter, more efficient and more responsive to consumer demand, too. The aircrafts use roughly half as much fuel per passenger as 25 years ago, and make half as much noise. Inside, what was three times as loud as a car on the highway is now only double. Most US planes have internet, and before long, it will even be fast enough to enjoy. JetBlue’s already is.

Democratizing air travel has required making changes. Some of these, like keeping expensive aircraft in the air two hours longer each day, are invisible to the customer. Others have provoked more agita.

In addition to filling planes more fully, airlines have added more seats. Using thinner, lighter materials—and in some cases, dollhouse-sized bathrooms—today’s typical plane packs 12 more seats into the same space. Some of that density comes from a tighter layout and some is due to the rise of all-coach low-cost airlines, but whatever the reason, more passengers are breathing the same air.

The other big change is in the way airlines set airfares. The same customers who think nothing of paying for a $40 taxi to the airport will scour the internet until sunrise to save a dollar on airfare. Airlines have responded with the lowest possible base fares, coupled with separate charges for things a few customers are willing to pay for. The result is that most customers grumble about legroom but only a minority pay to do something about it. This non-fare revenue amounts to almost 50% of sales for the lowest of low-cost airlines, effectively subsidizing the cheapest fares with proceeds from those who are willing to buy the extras.

In the best of circumstances, this so-called unbundling is a choose-your-own adventure novel where you pay just for the baggage, seat, and flexibility that you personally value. In the worst of circumstances, it’s an infuriating maze and a target for regulation. Either way, the system has helped airlines maintain profitability while delivering mass-market fares.

Depending on your view, the current fare structure, with its options and add-ons, is either a new form of class stratification or a transfer from rich to poor. In this context, a fare system that delivers benefits across society yet still profits airlines is consistent. If the requirement is to engage with the life of the community, then the means is air travel.

In an age of mobility, getting Bubbe to Boca for bupkis is truly a mitzvah. Even if she pays for one checked bag, the average one-way fare from Boston to South Florida has fallen from $222 to $173 (in today’s dollars) in the last 25 years. That enables a lot of participation in family, community and life—all very important things, if you ask me.

So, the next time you’re about to kvetch about the passenger seated next to you, don’t. Packed airplanes are a blessing. But still, it wouldn’t hurt to have a little more room.

Samuel leads ICF’s global Aviation consultancy practice. He is an expert on airline economics and aviation corporate strategy.