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Airplanes without classes?

  1. Oct 18, 2005 #1


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    I hope that is the right forum to post to. What follows may seem like it has more to do with economics than engineering but that is not the case: the economics is straightforward but the engineering may not be.

    In long-range passenger flights there are 3 classes: 1st, business, and economy. Most people that I know do not really care about the champaigne when they buy a business ticket; they buy it for the legroom.

    Some people are budget constrained and may not be able to afford a business ticket, say, for $5000. But they detest traveling in the knee-scraper (economy) class for, say, $1000. If there was a type of seat that gave them half the extra legroom of a business seat for, say, $3000, they'd buy it in a heartbeat.

    So the question is, why do the airlines not supply those seats?

    In the limit, why isn't legroom purchased on a continuous basis (e.g., $200/inch)?

    Economically, this will not hurt airline profits and may increase them, even under full capacity. For the suspecting, here is a counterexample. As a thought experiment, imagine that a passenger buys an economy ticket for himself, and then also buys the seat directly in front of him. He pays $2000 for the two seats ($1000 each). He then removes the front seat and tosses it out of the exit, gaining extra legroom instantly. The airline has not lost any money: the passenger has paid the full price for both seats. On top, the airline may have saved some costs because there is one fewer passenger traveling (although as many seats were sold), but let's put these cost savings aside.

    In this case, the passenger has ended up with twice the legroom plus the depth of the front seat. This is more than what he may have been ready to accept for the price he has paid: twice the legroom.

    In this hypothetical scenario the airline cannot lose money. But the airline can strictly increase profits if it were to sell twice the legroom, instead of "twice the legroom plus a seat depth," for $2000.

    My question is, why don't we see this happening? What are the techinical / engineering costs that must be keeping none-too-shy airlines from grabbing this moneymaker of an idea?
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 18, 2005 #2


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    Probably just time.

    A plane typically doesn't stay on the ground very long unless it's being serviced. If they had to reconfigure seating every landing, that would end up costing the airline money.

    Every minute that the plane isn't shuffling people from point A to point B its inactivity is costing the airline money, particularly in this economy where the airlines are trying to cut costs and flights and do more with less. If they can get one extra flight per plane per month, then that's several planes they can decommission over their entire fleet.
  4. Oct 18, 2005 #3


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    Also, I suspect the airlines have put an enormous amount of effort into figuring out what people are willing to pay for.
  5. Oct 18, 2005 #4


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    That's only true if they are at capacity (capacity constrained by demand). By the same logic one shouldn't see shared shuttles (minivans) waiting for passengers in the airport. But one does.
    Last edited: Oct 19, 2005
  6. Oct 18, 2005 #5


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    Surely; but that by itself does not mean that there aren't multiple solutions to the optimization problem. Suppose that if my competitor is doing "A" then my optimal action is "A," but if my competitor were doing "B" then my optimal action would have been "B." It is even possible that our individual profits are higher under "B" than under "A" but we just happen to have gotten stuck in an inferior equilibrium.

    P.S. I am not suggeting that airlines should collude, only that the status quo may be shaping their marketing research. The answer won't be found unless the question is formulated first.

    P.P.S. Collusion is illegal under the federal and most state laws.
    Last edited: Oct 18, 2005
  7. Oct 19, 2005 #6


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    I think that this assumption is not really correct. Most people I know and have met on aircraft would not pay extra for some leg room. Most people have a hard enough time paying for the ticket they did get. Of course, I haven't been on any 13 hour+ trips in a while, so that may differ in those areas.

    The cost to the airline to do that would be very large. First off, seating is palletized. That means that rows of seats are attached and installed into set tracks in the flooring. There isn't too terribly much that is adjustable in them. That means new seating would have to be implemented. Implementing that on a fleet scale would be terribly expensive. Next, in your scenario, there would have to be a downtime between each flight to have every seat configuration changed so that each passenger gets the legroom they purchased. No way is that going to happen. Not only would it cost time in rearranging the aircraft every stop, but think about the airframers having to accomodate every possible combination of legroom adjustments possible. That would undoubtedly increase the size of the fuselage and thus add weight.
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