Slimline seats: look what they’re doing to us now

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It’s happening again — the big squeeze. According to a recent report, the airlines are coming up with yet another way to make flying uncomfortable. And once again, the story is about United Airlines, but this time the offence is something called “slimline seats”.

The report says that United — already famous for the kicking-and-screaming ejection of a passenger last year — is getting ready to jam 21 more seats into the economy section of its Boeing 757-300 planes. That means less room forairplane-head-on everyone, except those with the money to fly first-class, which remains untouched. United isn’t alone, either. Apparently all the airlines are making similar moves, though not to the same extent.

How are they going to do it? Using slimline seats — seats with less room than the ones we’re squeezed into already. The new seats are lighter and thinner, which means they have less padding. And according to some who’ve flown in them, the experience is “horrendously uncomfortable”. Even U.S. Senator John McCain has taken to Twitter to complain about them.

The bottom line here is, of course, the bottom line: by jamming more seats into the same space without adding much weight, the airlines can squeeze more profit out of each flight. And if it allows them to offer more bargain prices, that helps them compete with the new budget airlines like WOW and Norwegian Air.

Meanwhile, the last assault on that front — the bare-bones “basic economy” seat — is spreading. Even though some airlines have found that this strategy prompts some passengers to just choose another airline, it pushes the remaining ones to pay more for better service.

Fed up with flying? Take the train

On the good side, word is that train travel is steadily becoming more popular, especially in Europe. According to the travel insider website Skift, the number of people travelling by train is increasing every year worldwide — more than 9 billion, so far. And a number of countries are installing high-speed train links between major centres, making train travel faster. Germany’s Deutsche Bahn has introduced new high-speed trains that will cut two hours off the travel time between Berlin and Munich, and its regular trains will be cutting 90 minutes off their travel time.

Zephyr trainThe high-speed “bullet” trains will still take considerably longer to reach their destination than flying. But once you figure in the time spent getting to the airport, waiting a couple of hours for your flight, and travelling into town once you arrive, the two trips look pretty similar. And there’s no intrusive security line — or slim-line seats.

As well, there are now online booking sites that simplify the task of booking country-to-country trips involving more than one carrier. For example, Trainline lets you book a complicated multi-country journey in one transaction, with no booking fees.

Here in North America, the train revolution has been slow to take off. But train travel is very popular for short-haul trips in places like the U.S. Northeast, where driving can leave you stuck in horrendous traffic. And things may soon be picking up; there’s talk of installing high-speed train service in California.

Here in Canada, we can only hope the powers that be finally give in and launch high-speed train service in popular corridors. A high-speed line on the Montreal-Toronto-Windsor route has long been proposed, but these things take political will — and so far, that’s been lacking.

Or just get shot through a tube

But if you really want to avoid flying, why not try a Hyperloop? That’s what Elon Musk, famous inventor of the Tesla electric car, proposes as the next leap forward in mass transportation. The Hyperloop is a big vacuum tube through which you can transport passengers in self-contained cars or capsules, propelled by electromagnetic force.

Elon_Musk_at_the_SpaceX_CRS-8_post-launch_press_conference_(25711174644)In his words, it’s “something that never crashes, that’s at least twice as fast as a plane, that’s solar powered and that leaves right when you arrive, so there is no waiting for a specific departure time.”

Musk (left) is proposing a Hyperloop to replace the planned bullet train between Los Angeles and San Francisco. His loop would do the trip in just 30 minutes, he says, and cost one-tenth as much as the high-speed train. As well, he’s bidding on the contract for a non-vacuum loop connecting O‘Hare Airport to downtown Chicago.

Here in Canada, a Toronto company called Transpod has been working on its own Hyperloop design, and hopes to have a working model by 2020. If that comes true, we could be zipping from Toronto to Montreal in 30 minutes as well.

If it sounds far-fetched, don’t be too sure. The thought of shooting people through the air in metal tubes sounded fantastical back when Wilbur and Orville Wright were building their contraption. And a few years ago, the idea of basic economy and slim-line seats did too.

Elon Musk photo by NASA Kennedy from United States (KSC-20160408-PH_KLS0003_0047) [Public domain or CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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About Author

Paul Marshman is a retired journalist who spent 30 years as a writer and editor on Canadian newspapers, while travelling to the ends of the earth. Now he continues to travel while passing on his travel experiences to you.

2 Comments

  1. Guess that makes air travel for me an impossibility. Not that other factors hadn’t scotched that to begin with. The airlines can make every ‘profit for shareholders’ argument they want, this is pushing passengers out the door and into a comfortable rail car. It’s self destructive and all it takes is for ONE of the larger airlines to simply refuse to do it, advertising on every sports event and business show, and the front of the line innovators will be tearing out seats … much to the unhappiness of those shareholders the decision makers are professing to cater to. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe folks will continue to fly despite the total lack of reasonable comfort. And yes, boats and ships aren’t always a timely alternative. But trains are, when you factor in the security times and getting in and out of remote airports. Truly foolish. It’s almost like they want to prove Icarus was wrong all over again.

  2. I’m with you, Gary. It’s disheartening to see airlines doing everything they can to squeeze the last dollar out of their passengers — the not-wealthy ones, that is. It’s not like they aren’t making good money now. But of course, that didn’t stop the American banks from crashing the economy. And I agree: if an airline advertised it was going to give everyone a comfortable seat and not nickel-and-dime them to death, a lot of us would line up. Yes, there are some who’ll put up with anything to save a few dollars, but a lot of us are at an age where that doesn’t work for us any more. Can’t wait for the Hyperloop.
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