I’m somewhere between bemused and dumbfounded by the latest airline “solution” being proposed by plane-maker Airbus. But then, in an age where an airline ticket has been replaced by a series of tickable “ancillary revenue” boxes, I shouldn’t be surprised.
To start at the start. The 150-180-seat Airbus A320 – the second-best-selling airliner of all time behind the Boeing 737 – owes much of its success to the fact that its passenger seats are about an inch (2.5 centimetres) wider than its rival’s.
So what if, some evil genius at Airbus mused recently, we offered an A320 with the same seat width as the 737, but with an aisle seat that’s two inches (five centimetres) wider?
If the year was 2002 and not 2012, our evil genius would have wondered why workmates suddenly went quiet and moved away. He was obviously crazy.
But these days airlines are trying to simultanously offer cheap headline fares to keep up with the revolution started by the low-cost carriers and a growing maze of fare “options”, which increasingly are the foundation of airline profits.
“Airlines are improving their margins by charging for bags, window seats and food,” says Airbus sales boss John Leahy. “'But what most people really want is space and that’s what we can offer.”
Airbus has gone as far as to tempt airline accountants by reckoning that a $10 “premium seat” fee could raise an estimated $3 million per aircraft over 15 years in airline service.
Airbus market researcher Nicolas Tschechne says the rising weight of flyers is “quite dramatic”. “Passenger size has emerged as a core issue we need to deal with,” he says. “And sitting next to obese passengers is the number one complaint.”
Airbus says its new wide seat option is in response to requests by airlines, after a series of widely publicised incidents involving obese passengers in the US and Europe.
When they’ve been polled on the issue, travellers have said they believe overweight passengers should have to pay more, while dial-a-quote Michael O’Leary, the chief executive of Europe’s biggest low-cost carrier Ryanair, has even suggested a “fat tax”.
However, I think the idea of people paying higher rates for wider seats in economy class in the same seat row as people in smaller seats is a recipe for passenger unrest.
But it’s clear the era of user pays and “optional extras” has only just begun in the flying business. For many airlines – not just low-cost carriers – ancillary charges have become the difference between profitability and running at a loss.
What is your view? What do you think would be the result if airlines began offering such an option? Would you pay more for an extra 5cm of seat width?