Just how hellish can airlines make plane travel before passengers finally say enough’s enough?

Cathay Pacific seems willing to find out, with a plan to cram even more seats into its 777s revealed by the South China Morning PostThe move seems deliberately designed to hurt and humiliate adult passengers — but will they put up with it? The story is authoritative, although it remains unclear as to whether this is a test balloon the Hong Kong-based airline floated to gauge the public reaction.

For now Cathay Pacific is only talking about its fleet of 777s, but there’s no reason the same logic couldn’t be applied to its A330s, 787 Dreamliners and other planes to make them just as squashed.

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At the moment, the standout jet for economy class comfort on long-haul flights is the Airbus A380, but even these could be redesigned to fit in a whopping 11 seats across the economy cabin at its widest point.

This logic of pain has also been visited on shorter-haul passengers in Europe, where British Airways and Lufthansa, for example, have reduced the seat pitch in their premium cabins in single-aisle jets to the same degree of discomfort as the rest of those jets, and other operators have taken their pursuit of better metrics as far as making the toilets fewer in number and, in some cases, so tight most passengers couldn’t wipe their arses.

Is there a contrary case in favour of airlines giving us the smallest and most inconvenient seats and toilets in the history of the jet age?

Unfortunately there is. Despite the current reprieve from high fuel costs, aggressive competition is all but universal, and competition requires airlines to efficiently allocate resources, use them better, and deny the mantle of “cheapest fares” to rivals.

We have, to paraphrase many reasonable analysts, only ourselves to blame.

But let’s consider where this could be going. Take the Qantas 787-9s, for instance. If Qantas does the logical thing and says “me too” when it becomes the last airline to fly the Dreamliner on Australian routes, with nine seats across in economy, how can it differentiate its offer on those jets from the same tight seating on a Jetstar 787?

If your legs suffer from bone pain for hours on end, no amount of better food and drink is going to be worth the money. The feeling will be the same as flying a Jetstar or Scoot or Air Canada 787 over similar routes, especially as you won’t be able to clean up after yourself in the dinky little toilet.

The problem for Qantas, as well as Cathay Pacific, and other high-reputation, full-service carriers will be that of differentiation. If the experience is going to be bad, why not just go for the cheapest price and be done with it?

True, you could pay multiples of the cheapest fare to fly various premium economy or business class options, but the brand value of these roomy cabins also relies on their not being products of mass travel. Airlines are unlikely to decide to offer vastly more premium quality seats if they have to expand their lounges threefold in size, or find that they have actually damaged the appeal of those seats to those who now buy them.

As each generation of travellers grows up to become slightly larger than their parents, and each iteration of airliner cabins becomes even more insufferably stuffy, the desirability, or “cachet”, of air travel risks being broken or degraded.

People may decide to fly much less, while in some cases trading up to more comfort. No matter how good the metrics of a 198-seat 737 MAX 200 or 436-seat A330 may be, if they never fill the last 18 or 86 seats respectively, the theoretical exercise in hurting customers to improve earnings comes unstuck, badly.

But by then the notion of Qantas or Cathay Pacific as being “quality” flying experiences will be dead, and an entirely different, and no doubt quite difficult rebuilding of the concept of air travel will challenge whatever the airlines of the future might be called.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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