Artificial Discomfort

There’s a series of three posts on travel that I’ve meant to make for some time, that I’ve had trouble getting around to – on United Airlines policies, Singapore Airlines and Changi Airport, and on why I’ll never use Travelocity again (and suggest that you don’t either).  I’ll start with this post about United!

This was motivated by a flight from San Francisco back to Seattle that I did in October, though the picture above was during travel via Tokyo (and was mostly an experiment in hand-held mild HDR; unfortunately, it’s through glass, which is visible).  Now, there was nothing particularly terrible about this flight, but between the aforementioned flight and the original one down, two things struck me as rather poorly designed about the overall UA flight experience.

No, That Doesn’t Fit in the Overhead

Like most North American airlines, there’s now a fee for checking even the first bag on United.  As if the relatively poor quality (at least if judged by personal experience with bag loss) of bagging handling at most U.S. airports (especially LAX!) wasn’t enough to dissuade you from checking a bag, there’s now an added financial incentive to bring all your possessions on-board with you.  I’m sure that somewhere, someone created a spreadsheet that projected reduced costs from fewer checked bags, and increased revenue from passengers paying for bags that they really did have to check.

However, I’m not sure if airline executives bothered to take a full flight before coming up with this brilliant idea.  If they did, they might have noticed that overhead bins on a full flight are always over-capacity.  In fact, the sole reason for frequent fliers to get on the plane early – no, it’s not the comfy seats – is to ensure that they can stow their bags.  Literally, I can’t think of any other reason you’d want to get a head start on sitting down in cramped quarters; this is definitely the only reason I ever use priority boarding.

Anyways, now people try to bring carry-on luggage that’s so big, it makes those baggage sizers that you are supposed to be able to fit your bag inside look like a cellphone case.  But who can fault them?  One failed attempt to stow your luggage, and you can hand it to a flight attendant who will gladly check your bag – for free – to your destination.  On my departing flight, the airplane couldn’t have been more than 2/3rds finished boarding, and the flight attendants were already helpfully announcing that if your bag doesn’t fit in the overhead, they’ll be happy to check it for you.  I’ve only once – on an Air Canada flight – seen the flight attendants enforce the size limit prior to boarding, and that was equally comical because hardly a single bag actually fit in that thing.  But don’t worry, if it didn’t, they were happy to check your bag for you.  For free.

Of course, this slows down the boarding process for everyone, and since nobody really wants their bag to run the LAX gauntlet if it doesn’t have to, there’s lots of squishing and shoving and relocation of bags at the tail end of any boarding process when the flight is full.  It just feels like there has to be a better way.  And having done relatively short flights such as Kuala Lumpur to Singapore (about an hour), having fast, free, reliable checked bags seems to be a good option, but perhaps the cost of labor makes that untenable here.  Though I’m not sure the extended boarding process (during which time you’ve got to pay a pilot instead of a bag handler) is cheaper.

Economy Plus/Minus

For my long-time colleague and frequent fellow flyer, Adrian, there were few questions more important on a given flight than whether or not he (or we) might get an upgrade.  This was one of those things that just always seemed vastly more important to him than to me; if we were bidding on a business class upgrade, I’m pretty sure he’d be willing to pay at least 3 or 4 times more than I would.  But United’s economy “plus” concept gave me at least one plausible, simple reason for this: the discomfort inflicted by the crammed seating in economy grows exponentially as total legroom reduces to the point that your legs don’t physically fit.

What does this have to do with United Economy Plus?  If you’re not familiar with it, it’s an added tier of service between business and regular economy, in which you get an economy seat and service, but a bit more legroom. Ostensibly, as the marketing material went when they introduced the concept, they ‘removed’ some seats to provide the extra legroom in Economy Plus.  And perhaps, at some point in time, there was some truth to that.  However, I can say with certainty that the “standard” economy seats on United – let’s call them “Economy Minus” – are significantly more cramped than the economy section of the Air Canada flights I used to take frequently out of San Francisco and elsewhere.  This isn’t subjective; whether or not you can actually open your laptop (and to what extent) is a fairly reliable measure of how much space there is in front of you.  In Economy Minus, I don’t even try taking it out of the bag.

But saying that economy class is crowded is like saying that the sky is blue.  Where the ridiculous side effects of this scheme comes into play is with not full flights.  Roughly 40% of the economy section seems to be allocated to Economy Plus, but very few people are willing to pay the $39 that United asks (on a relatively short 2 hour flight) for the upgrade to Economy Plus.  So while you’ll find a few people up there – 1K members that are seated there for free, perhaps – you get a situation where regular economy is packed – every middle seat is full – and Economy Plus is sitting there, empty.  Unless you want to pay $39, you can’t move up there.  I’ve done a few more flights since watching this dynamic at work, and on every flight you see the flight attendants defending those seats, telling people they can’t move up there unless they pay.  Sometimes, they even announce make announcements over the intercom, explaining why nobody is allowed to sit in those seats.

The hilarious thing is, their rationale is that some people paid the $39 to sit there.  When you look at the variation in what people sitting next to each other paid for a given seat, this is pretty laughable; depending on when and how you booked, there might be hundreds of dollars in fare differences between passengers, but there’s still going to compact you into the Economy Minus section.  So ironically, like the baggage scheme, it’s not clear that many people actually ever pay to sit in Economy Plus – but they sure do force a lot of people to sit in the middle seats in Economy Minus as a consequence.

I think I understand now why Air Canada often says it’s rated the best North American airline – it probably is.  Just don’t compare against the Asian airlines!


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