Should All Flyers Go First Class?

Anyone who flies, or, at least, anyone who isn’t rich who flies, probably wishes he or she had more leg room. Going “cattle class” isn’t fun. But for most people it still is better than not going. Which for most travelers is the real alternative.

For decades the Civil Aeronautics Board regulated airfares. Airlines competed on service rather than price. Business travelers, whose companies paid the bill, enjoyed uncrowded luxury in the air.

It wasn’t as grand for anyone on a budget. You were more likely to drive, especially if you had a family.

Deregulation of the airlines transformed flying. Discount airlines emerged, legacy carriers were forced to compete on price, airports filled with leisure travelers, and flying was possible for even those of modest means. Everyone was happy—except the old business flyers.

It isn’t fun being crammed into a metal tube zooming through the air, but most flyers still seem more interested in price than comfort. Now the group FlyersRights wants the government to mandate minimum seat width and pitch. The group’s president, Paul Hudson, argued that safety and health are at stake, with emergency evacuation made more difficult and deep vein thrombosis made more common.

Human rights analyst Laine Strutton suggested “an interesting argument to be made for a basic human right to physical space on an airplane.” Travelers United’s Christopher Elliott wondered why anyone would want to fly in an “unsafe and unhealthy space that doesn’t respect your dignity?”

Flying with dignity sounds rather grandiose for most Americans. As I ask on, “If it is an overnight flight, do I have a right to a bed? With feather pillows? Does having a “basic human right” to airplane space mean someone else has a duty to pay for me to fly?”

A basic human right to space sounds like the culmination of the “positive” rights movement. I’m entitled to anything and everything that I desire. The only issue is figuring out how to make someone else pay for it.

Which is the big problem with the idea of a “right to space” on airplanes. Anyone who wants space can buy more today.

Yet most flyers still appear to prefer cheap fares over additional room. Flight attendants have to warn economy passengers not to move up into empty economy plus seats which could have been purchased for a modest fee.

Of course, health and safety are supposed to trump the cold and calculating market, but we’ve suffered no epidemic of unnatural deaths from cramped airline cabins.

Presumably putting just a handful of people in a 747 would be marginally safer for them, as would adding an extra engine, another pilot, more flight attendants, and ever more back-up systems. The question is the benefit-cost trade-off.

After all, the government could ban any car smaller or less well constructed than an S-Class Mercedes, or even better, a tank. More people would survive accidents. On the downside, most of us would be taking the bus.

Which is the same problem with mandating minimum space on airplanes. Make every airplane a premium economy flight and fares will rise to premium economy levels.

This would be fine for the wealthy and business travelers, who would enjoy additional options for better class travel and fewer vacationers blocking the aisle as they boarded. However, what about the family of four making its first trip to see grandparents across the country?

They’d be more likely to hop in a car—which actually would be far more dangerous than flying. Most affected, of course, would be those of little means.

Coming up with fabulous new “rights” to which we all supposedly are entitled is a magical process. There’s never any cost attached to them.

There is no “right” to any particular amount of space on an airplane. There is only a trade-off between comfort and cost. This is a decision that only passengers should make.