Earlier this month, a tweet
from a disgruntled passenger on board a United Airlines flight has sparked heated debates all over the internet. The passenger complained that though there were seven empty rows in front of him, he was not allowed to move there for free as they were paid seats. The passenger was upset about the fact that he wasn’t simply able to move to an unoccupied row for free even though his row was full.
With a very unapologetic and straight attitude, the airline responded that those seats were marked as ‘Economy Plus’ and only passengers who paid for the seat were allowed to sit there.
"The customers who choose to pay for Economy Plus are then afforded that extra space. If you were to purchase a Toyota, you would not be able to drive off with a Lexus because it was empty," the company further said.
While it's always debatable whether brands should deal with their customers so bluntly, this incident sheds light on one of the most frequently witnessed scenarios on board a flight. There are no regulations to govern this anywhere in the world, making it a grey area and leaving it up to the airline’s discretion.
Before we get deeper, here's a little background on how aviation has developed since the middle of the 20th century. The industry has changed massively in the last few decades. Back in the day, flying was extremely expensive and was affordable only for a selected few. Airline options were limited and direct routes from tier 2 cities were unheard of.
It was also quite uncomfortable. Before the jet age, aircraft were exceedingly noisy and bumpy. To make up for these inconveniences, airlines offered a five-star in-flight service including gourmet dining, unlimited premium alcohol, king-size leg space, and room to breathe.
Alas, with modern airliners, much of the aircraft-related nuisances have disappeared and air travel was opening up to new markets. With more and more passengers opting to fly, a new business model took shape that we today call a ‘low-cost carrier’.
American carrier Southwest was the first to master this model and the rest soon followed suit. EasyJet and RyanAir rule European skies, AirAsia and Jetstar rule South-east Asia, and India has Indigo, GoAir, and Spicejet.
In fact, more than 80 percent of the market in India is operated under the low-cost model. The country is developing at a rapid pace and the market has clocked a consistent growth with more than 18 percent rise in passengers year-on-year.
In a low-cost model, the airline tries to get rid of all avoidable expenses. The ticket you purchase will only take you from point A to B. A seat on the plane is all you get.
On the contrary, full-service airlines like Air India and Vistara offer an in-flight meal, better seats with more legroom, frequent flyer perks, and sufficient baggage allowance. While these offerings are included in a full-service carrier's ticket, on a low-cost airline, each of these services has to be paid for additionally. And because of this, low-cost airlines are able to offer cheaper fares that attract more passengers.
For a student or a family planning a vacation, affordable tickets matter the most. In fact, in a developing country, the low-cost model works are extremely popular.
Now, low-cost carriers also have special paid seats in the economy class. IndiGo, GoAir, and Spicejet operate A320 and B737 and reserve the first few rows and ‘exit’ rows near the wings for their ‘premium’ offerings. You need to pay a special fee to use them because they offer more legroom. Airlines also bundle meals and priority services, such as ‘GoBusiness’ or ‘SpiceMax’.
Now, can you move to these seats if they're empty?
This where the controversy lies. From my experience, IndiGo, GoAir and SpiceJet crew ask you to pay the fee right there if you wish to move.
There are arguments that the seat will be there unused throughout the flight and why not let passengers move to them for free and get a better experience.
Well, that's how the business model has been built. Everything that can be monetised will be monetised. If airlines let people move, many wouldn't book those seats in advance, hoping that a few will remain empty and they can avail it for free. This will be a huge setback for the company because it depends on these ancillary revenues to make a profit.
India's aviation market is frugal, and the airlines need to replicate the same if they wish to be in business. At the end of the day, passengers need to stop looking at an aircraft seat as an ordinary train or bus seat. That seat is now a product that airlines intend to sell.
And, letting passengers shift for free is an injustice to those who've paid in advance to use the same service. Passengers need to know that this sector has razor-sharp profit margins and airlines are forced to be thrifty. You either get affordable fares or comfortable rides, there's barely a middle ground left.
Also, this space should be left unregulated. It's the airline's aircraft, they should be the ones to command their offerings.
Full-service carriers often use these premium seats to lure their frequent flyers by upgrading them in the last minute. And this is possible because the matter is solely at their discretion.
India's current regulations are in fact better than a lot of countries. Airlines, irrespective of their operating model, have to offer sufficient baggage allowance, drinking water is always complimentary, and add-on rates are transparently visible. In comparison, carriers like Ryanair charge you even for checking-in at the airport. Singapore's Scoot Air doesn't permit any outside eatables on board, forcing you to buy from them.
On a larger scale, aviation is no longer about luxury. It's about efficiency. It's about getting you from one place to another quickly. Long gone are the Maharajah days!
Shivam Vahia is a developer by hobby and an avid aviation geek.
First Published: IST