How the Private Sector Is Destroying Our Personal Space

Does your airplane seat feel like it’s shrinking? It’s not in your head.

The natural tendency of the private sector, when unrestrained, is to strip us of our personal physical and psychic space. The clearest examples may be found in the air travel and broadcasting industries. When it comes to air travel, private airline companies’ profits depend on maximizing revenue per cubic inch of space inside a plane.

Fifty years ago, when regulated airlines competed primarily on service rather than price expanding personal space was part of their strategy for attracting customers. As the Wall Street Journal reports seats on the first Boeing 707 were 17-inches wide, a dimension based on the width of a U.S. Air Force pilot’s hips. In the 1970s and 1980s seat width increased to 18 inches and in the early 2000s, seats on the new Boeing 777 and Airbus 380 were widened still further to 18.5 inches.

But the increased concentration resulting from airline deregulation reversed this dynamic. Today just 4 airlines control 85 percent of the national market. In many major airports, a single company may account for 80 percent of the flights. Their near monopoly power has allowed airline companies to boost revenue by adding a seat in every row and in some cases adding rows too. This is achieved by shrinking seat width and pitch and narrowing aisles.

The WSJ notes that new Boeing 777 and 787 Dreamliners may have 17-inch-wide seats. Seats on a new Airbus A330 can be as narrow as 16.7 inches. Airlines not only squeeze our waists and shoulders, they cramp our legs as well. Independent Traveler reports that over the last two decades the space between your seat and the one in front of you has been reduced from 34 inches to as little as 30 inches. Some airlines shoehorn passengers into 28 inches.

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