The Two Seat Solution

I spoke at Smith College's Fat and the Academy (FATA) last week in Northampton, Mass. Getting from Phoenix Arizona to New England on a budget can be fun. On the way out, I went through Detroit (flying into Hartford). On the way back, I went through Cinncinati and then through Minneapolis. From the moment I left the hotel to the moment I arrived at my condo door, I had been traveling for 18 hours. A new record for me (previous was a 16 hour day going from Victoria, BC to Charlottetown, PEI via Air Canada).

This was exhausting. The good people at Smith were the first to buy me two seats on each flight and this was my first experience at how that plays out. Frankly, neither NWA nor Delta made the experience any easier. It seems that even when you are willing to buy the two seats, the help has to make a comment or two to let you know of their disapproval. I had a couple of encounters along the way. "Who is with you?" was asked a couple of times. One person even said "oh" and gasped briefly upon realizing her mistaken question.

I have to tell you that the attitude suprised me. I have resisted buying a second seat to date because I feel like the problem resides in the design of airplanes and not in me. But I can see the other side of the argument. There are a number of reasons why someone might want more room on a plane (my favorite is the buy who buys a seat for his guitar). I don't mind really paying extra for extra room. So I thought it would be interesting to see what it would be like to finally comply to the wishes of the airlines.

Okay, what I experienced doesn't really surprise me, but it does give me another reason to resist doing it in the future. Basically, I felt "marked" by having the two seats. I had to keep track of two boarding passes, explain the two tickets to a series of people who seemed unfamiliar with the concept (it can't be that unusual an occurence, can't it?) and basically I spent a very long couple of days feeling most humiliated along the way.

In addition, my two standing complaints about the two-seat solution remain:

1. I don't take up two seats. I take up a little more than a seat and 1/4. Paying double because the airlines can't be bothered to design diversity into their cabins seems like a penalty to me. I know that the complaint from thinner people is that they paid for a whole seat and my taking up that 1/4 means they are penalized. And they are right. And if airline seats were only in one size and could only be made in one size, then I would say that the "seat" unit would be all that we have to deal with. But a seat can be any size an engineer designs it to be. If the airlines wanted to accommodate a diverse market base, it would just be a matter of design. We're aren't trying to change the laws of physics here.

2. Sitting across two seats is an extremely painful event in most planes. There is a great big metal joint that hits one's hip and usually another piece of metal that hits one's shoulder blade. The bucket seat means that one is sitting cockeyed with one side raised. It is a chiropractor's nightmare. And luck you, you get to be strapped to this torture chair for hours at a time because the aisles are so thin that getting up and stretching is equally invasive on your neighbors. So basically buying two seats means that you are paying to be tortured. As I wrote last month, I know that this could be changed. Frontier has seats that eliminate all the problems with this scenario.

I have an idea in mind for an adjustable bench seat that allows for a sliding arm so that people could buy all of the bench, 1/2 of the bench or 1/3 of bench. the problem with this idea isn't its implementation. The problem is that airlines sell seats in convoluted ways that would make such configurations (and fair pricing of them) difficult. So not only would the physical environment have to be redesigned, but so would the marketing and billing systems. A major overhaul for the existing airlines.

But an upstart has a great opportunity here to take the big guys out. Southwest Airlines (imagining me hissing as I say their name) is making the big bucks on uniform service. They get the lions share of the market because they are cheap and people who can conform for the price. But there is a limit to this strategy. At some point you run out of people who can fit into the narrow (literally and figuratively) world that Southwest is creating. So other ways to expand the market will have to be addressed.

In the meantime, it would be nice if, when you do what "they" want and buy a second seat that "they" could be nice about it. I know, I know, the stigma is real. But stigma is bad business in the end. And the airlines are pretty much pissing everyone off nowadays, so letting their prejudices get in the way seems a bit, well, dumb.


So any airline executive and/or rich entrepreneur out there -- here is your opportunity. Accommodate diversity and you will find a loyal market!

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