An article in the Daily Beast about the lack of safety in coach class was both interesting and scary. The article was titled: Flying Coach Is So Cramped It Could Be a Death Trap with running header of:
A judge calls it a ‘life-and-death safety concern.’ A government document shows there may not be enough room to brace for impact. Inside the potential dangers.
This investigative story is based on an US Appeals Court case brought by an activist group called "Flyers Rights", which has an interesting website worth at least a peruse if you fly regularly, or even not so regularly.
The gist of the DB story is that coach class is probably no longer safe, the US Dept of Transportation standards are not being followed, and the FAA (let alone Boeing) is not releasing all of their current data on evacuation tests. They also discuss the biomechanics of the closeness of the seats and the fact that passengers cannot properly brace themselves for an emergency landing.
All of this is no surprise to anyone who flies. The DB article calls it "densification". And it is all chalked up to "greed" on the part of airlines.
Please don't get me wrong. Flying is awful. It used to be glamorous and something for which one dressed up. The getting there and back used to be part of the adventure. It's not. It's horrible and discomforting and something to be endured. But I fly, and I imagine that many of you do, when there is a meeting or a vacation or a family thing to do that is more than 500 miles away.
But what I found most entertaining about this story was the inevitable outpouring of ire on twitter including things like:
The airlines might as well load us in like cattle because that's what they think we are. - PMK@veve4heart
I don't think the airlines see passengers as "cattle", as they don't want to eat us. They want to make money. We are customers. But what any business or even industry sees as "customer service: is dictated by a number of factors. There are K-selectors, which go for higher quality, more effort and fewer offspring, er, customers. Think about chartering your own plane to go to SfN. I, by and large, do not qualify for such companies. Or rather, do not choose to use such companies. They charge a premium for service. There are also r-selectors, who make money by charging less to more people. This would include nearly every big box store.
If you look at the airline industry, they have a couple of sets of costs no matter how many people they fly. Fuel, which is cheaper today. Staff. Lots of people think pilots are paid too much and work too little. Others don't. And yes, many of us think that top executives make obscene amounts of money.
This brings me to one of my favorite sayings (not mine, but whose? I know not): What is a general definition of rich, or too rich, or who should be taxed more? Anyone who makes more money than me.
That the airlines want to make money is part of why they are in business. Keep in mind that if a company, a publically traded company, doesn't make money, it doesn't stay in business. This is one of the reasons why there are far fewer airlines today than there were even 10 years ago, let alone 30 years ago. How much money they should (and should is a very dangerous word here) and at what cost to passengers is a legitimate debate.
But that is not (entirely) why the FAA and the NSTB exist. They exist because we, the people (who allegedly are represented by the government), think that safety in transportation is important. [also because we can't integrate, in the mathematical sense of area under the curve, about every day things. A flight crash that kills 20 or 100 is a horrible massive problem. Deaths due to car accidents are about 1.3 million people/ year, which is more than 3000 people per day. That's a 9/11 every single day. Have we turned this country upside down about that? No, we have small efforts (seatbelt laws and campaigns). One third of those deaths are likely related to alcohol or substance abuse whilst driving, and we still do not regulate drunk driving the way we regulate flying. But that's another rant for another day.
Why do I care about this? One of the most dangerous things going on today is the unilateral business-friendly climate (i.e., the current government) and the loosening of the safety-based laws. And this is getting mixed up with issues about profits that companies make, which is how I interpret the "we-are-cattle" remarks.
We want airlines to make less money, but we have the choice to fly or not. What do you think drives low prices on airlines or at WalMart? People who are willing to pay that amount of money to fly. Airlines could make planes less dense, but it would likely result in higher prices. In fact, you can already do that. If you don't like coach, pay for business class. But, you and I and most people flying don't think business or first is worth it. And worth it means we have made a decision about the value of the bigger seat and more room and we don't want to pay the money for that. We want first class seats at economy prices.
I would separate out two arguments here: one about obscene profits and high executive salaries from the other about safety issues in the things we do. They are tied, I do not deny that. When airlines want to make money they will cut safety corners. Appropriate regulation is necessary for safety aspects of things we chose to do. The problem is not regulating the profits of the airline industry. I personally do not believe a communist government (which almost always leads to a totalitarian system, with an elite at the top, not much different from the stratification we've got right now in the US) will serve the needs of the citizens. One of the (pretty much undisputed facts, at least in my reading) is that post-price regulation, airfares went down. And the airlines, if they stay in business will make money. What we need to think about is the safety. Public pressure on companies works. Sometimes. But what works best is getting the government to enact the safety laws we want to see. And that's only one of the things wrong with a "pro-business" administration.