Budget airlines and COVID-19: It's time for cheap air fares to die

During the course of this pandemic I've concluded there are two types of people: those who love flying, aircraft and everything to do with aviation, and those who see it as a necessary evil to be endured on the way to somewhere good.

Since travel shut down around March, I've been gobsmacked to see people pay good money to either take a joy flight to nowhere, or – even worse – to dine on a plane that's not leaving the tarmac.

When I expressed this amazement on social media, many agreed that flying was the absolute worst part of travel, and the one good thing about COVID-19 lockdown was not having to go near an airport.

There are many aspects of flying to dislike: the security checks, the endless pulling out of passports and other documents, the rush to make connections, the disappointing food, the kids sitting near you with iPads but no headphones.

However, the worst irritant is the ever-shrinking seat size in economy class, at its worst in the cramped interiors of budget airlines. I'm a big person and economy seating is like a mild torture chamber to me. It's particularly bad on long international flights, in which everything about my seat is wrong for an extended period: not wide enough for my shoulders, my shins jammed against metal struts, the headrest and armrests too low for me to use.

Flying is awful, so why should we resurrect this model after the pandemic has passed? Isn't it unfit for purpose? Not only is flying in the cheap seats uncomfortable, but the substantial real decrease in airfares over past decades (especially on low-cost carriers) has led to more and more people flying, more and more often – and we're paying a hefty price for that in the damage caused by climate change. When we used to travel overseas every two or three years, that was one thing; but many middle-class Australians now go overseas every year, sometimes more often.

A related problem is over-tourism. As with flight emissions, COVID-19 has briefly alleviated this problem, but without providing a long-term solution. Do we really want to go back to popular cities being so crowded that no one enjoys being there? Where traditional markets are so full of tourists that aggrieved locals tell them to go away? Where authorities start thinking about how to make sites so expensive that only the rich can afford to visit? When seeing a great artwork like the Mona Lisa becomes an endurance trial?

What's the solution? Making flights more expensive. Hear me out. This could be a win-win situation.

What if governments set minimum standards for economy class seating, requiring a space that would be comfortable for every passenger within the normal span of human sizes? Let's imagine an economy seat with the dimensions common in the 1960s: a long-haul economy seat on a Boeing 707 then had a pitch of up to 91cm, now down to 80cm or less on most airlines; and seat width was over 48cm, now commonly down to 43cm.

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Obviously fares would go up. But what else would happen? People would fly long distances less often. Airlines would make money from the higher fares, but would be able to focus on quality rather than new methods of crowding everyone closer than sardines.

Destinations would be less crowded, more pleasant to explore, and the locals would enjoy living there. They'd be more viable long-term as tourist destinations; places like Venice might even attract local residents again, rather than ceding its piazzas to tourists.

Fewer passengers on fewer flights would help the necessary fight against climate change. We've pretended for years we can somehow ignore the problem caused by aircraft emissions, or wave them away with tokenistic carbon offsets, but we can't. Improving the comfort of the average economy passenger should also lower emissions. That sounds like a win-win situation.

I hear what you're saying, there are obvious losers; that people with less money wouldn't be able to travel. But that's not true. People might fly long-haul less often. But they would still travel locally, on shorter flights or by surface transport. And it's not as if no one would be able to afford to fly overseas – it might just be less frequent, and thus more highly savoured.

On that topic, it could be argued that years of cheap overseas flights have stolen some of the mystery of travel. Maybe a touch of scarcity could produce a win-win-win situation – helping with climate change, countering overtourism and renewing the joy of discovery.

And I'll add one more win to that list. If we put budget airlines out of business, we'd never again have to roll our eyes at Ryanair management's ridiculous publicity stunts. Now that'd be worth paying for.

See also: This is why travel will be better post-pandemic

See also: COVID-19 makes flying business class feel more like economy

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