Plane seat sizes, extra charges, overhead bin fights: How flying is worse than it used to be

How to get the best seat on a plane

Ever spent 15 hours stuck in the middle seat in economy class? Then this guide's for you.

How has the flying experience changed over the past two decades? Not for the better in many ways. We're flying closer and angrier, aboard airlines that are constantly devising new ways to squeeze our money as well as squeezing us in. Here's a glance in the rear-vision mirror at those aspects of air travel that have changed for the worse over the past 20 years.

Seat shrinkage

Aren't they smaller, tighter and excuse me, but your facial hair is tickling my ear? For the most part the airlines that were flying 20 years ago have not changed the seat pitch in their economy class cabins in the intervening years.

However, a bunch of budget carriers have entered the game in that time and when it comes to space, and just about every other yardstick, they're lean and mighty mean. A budget airline might have a seat pitch of just 73.7cm and a seat width of 43cm in economy, and that's tight.

Regardless of who you're flying with, airlines have got a lot better at packing their aircraft. Flying with an empty seat beside you in economy is enough to have you whistling the happy song. A row all to yourself feels like winning the lottery. Also – uncomfortable fact – we're getting bigger. Chow down at the terminal's Dunkin Donuts outlet and you wonder why the seat seems tight?

See also: Travel experts rate best and worst plane seats

Ancillary charges

You've scored a bargain basement airfare but you're being charged for checked-in baggage, seat selection, a meal, if you want frequent flyer miles or priority boarding, and if you show up at the check-in desk with an overweight carry-on you can expect to get whacked.

Check in for a Ryanair flight without a boarding pass and the airline will hit you with a £15 boarding card re-issue fee. This is the same airline that once proposed charging passengers £1 to use the onboard toilet.

Especially for the budget carriers that have entered the airline business over the past 20 years, ancillary fees are integral to their business model. In 2015, low-cost US carrier Spirit Airlines, the undisputed Voldemort of ancillary charges, made more than 43 per cent of its revenue from these charges. In that same year airlines around the world netted an estimated collective haul of $US40.5 billion in ancillary fees and charges, and that figure goes up year by year.

See also: The airlines that earn the most from booking fees and baggage charges



Back in the bold and carefree days of 1997 you could march on board an aircraft with nail scissors, a Swiss army knife, a litre of water, a 250ml bottle of sunblock, cable ties and a multitude of everyday household items now considered potential instruments of mayhem and destruction.

You could also buy a litre of Laphroaig single malt duty free in Heathrow and not have it confiscated at some intermediate stop thanks to Australia's Border Force requirements. X-ray scanning of hand luggage was already mandatory but full body scanners and explosive detection swabs are a sad but necessary fact of air travel in 2017.

See also: How common is theft on planes?


In the 1970s the flying experience started to become a little less special and it's been on the downward slope ever since. In the 1990s it was casual but still civilised. Now we have air rage and passengers who use their tray table as a baby-change table, perform erotic dances under the influence of one too many martinis, flip out and try and open the emergency exit – impossible in case you're wondering – and force aircraft to land in unexpected places when fights erupt over reclined seats.

Take a look at Instagram's Passenger Shaming page and experience fear of flying, without even leaving the ground.

See also: Etiquette for travellers: Ten rules you should follow

Battle of the bins

Space to stow your carry-ons in the overhead locker is your right but it's first-come first-in. Board late and you might just find every square inch of available space in the bin nearest your seat already chockers.

Passengers are bending the carry-on rules, packing to the max so they can dash straight off the plane and avoid the carousel crush, or just because their checked-in bags are already at burst point. Most airlines are loathe to enforce their own carry-on rules since it's like speeding on the Sydney Harbour Bridge – too many are doing it, and enforcement would cause chaos.

See also: Budget airlines: What sort of service you should expect


Twenty years ago the airfare for a particular flight was relatively static. It might be more expensive if you had to go somewhere in a hurry, but everyone in the same class on the same flight was paying the same if they were travelling on a standalone airfare.

These days you can bet that unless they're travelling together, no two passengers sitting in the same row on an international flight have paid the same fare. What you pay is the result of weird science.

How far in advance and from whom you buy your ticket, what day of the week, the demand for seats on that particular flight and that day are just some of the variables that determine the price.

If you search for a flight and find a fare, that fare might have changed when you revisit the same site a day or week later, and almost never to your advantage.

It's not all bad though. Next week: The ways flying is better than it was 20 years ago.

See also: The real reason cabin lights are dimmed for take-off and landing

See also: Why airlines sometimes fly near-empty planes