Putting the Squeeze on the Traveler

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IT's not you. The seats in airliners really are getting smaller. In order to wedge a few more travelers into their planes, many carriers in the United States have instructed manufacturers to knock a few inches off the seat width - shrinking each passenger's bit of territory from 22 inches, in most cases, to 19. At the same time, according to a survey on the subject in a recent Wall Street Journal, the space between seats back-to-front - called ``pitch'' in the business but known to laymen as legroom - has also been disappearing. What used to be the standard 34 inches has contracted to as little as 31.

The immediate difficulty with this trend toward diminished cubic inches in which to turn, twist, or stretch is physiological. Airline customers in the US are if anything getting bigger and taller on average. Forced togetherness is a fact of flying. But it's amazing what an added inch or two could do to make six hours of sardinelike proximity more tolerable.

Another difficulty is philosophical. What do smaller seats say about the thinking of airline management in an age of deregulation and snarling competition? Has the surge to maximize revenue pushed aside service to passengers? What about the safety considerations of more space to move about in the cabin?

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Then there's economics. If only fares were shrinking along with cushion widths. Low prices make even the tightest seats appealing. But most of the old bargain rates and bargain, upstart airlines are gone. The special fares available today are well hedged with restrictions and shift as frequently as the wind. Pity the passengers who have to make a last change in travel plans - their economy fares were locked in long ago.

The airlines have a right to their profits. It's terribly expensive to operate fleets of giant planes, and fare hikes may be justified as costs rise. And it's probably true that the early days of deregulation might have given travelers an unrealistic expectation of constantly falling prices.

But seat shrinking? Some pinched passengers may vow never to return to the coach section of a 747 or DC 10. And they're more likely to stay on the ground than pay for an easy chair in first class.

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