Why the gripe? Airfares are actually cheaper now


It’s 2015 — welcome to another year of uninformed media clickbait about how airline seats are shrinking (newsflash: yes they are) and the reason why (not enough people want to pay a premium for bigger standard seats).

Yet airline fares are lower than they’ve ever been. US Department of Transportation data show plainly that the average airfare fell by 14 percent in real terms in the last twenty years.

The annual US domestic average itinerary fare, in 2014 constant dollars (i.e., adjusted for inflation using the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Price Index) dropped from $454 to $389.

That’s an average of $65 dollars, every flight, in your pocket.

Consumer advocacy groups may be quick to object to that: after all, they’d argue, the airlines have more fees than ever.

But who spends $65 on fees? Bag fees on the US majors are $25, and if you hold a co-branded credit card or fly frequently enough they’re free. Even if you don’t manage to grab something at the increasingly decent airport food outlets, a sandwich off the menu is $9 — and it’s a lot tastier than the doggy-dish TV dinners we were served in 1995.

And what about these “sardine seats”? Let’s take a Boeing 737 or 757, both aircraft that Delta, United or American might have been flying 20 years ago. Taking a generous interpretation of the “good old days” of seating, let’s imagine that pitch was 32 inches back then. Let’s also take the worst that the US mainline carriers offer right now: 30 inches — though 31-inch pitched seats are much more the norm.

Since those seats were 17.2 inches wide 20 years ago and are 17.2 inches wide now, the math isn’t that hard: a standard ticket buys you 6.3 percent less personal space.

Yet you’re paying 14.3 percent less for that same standard ticket than you did in 1995. And that doesn’t take into account the fact that many aircraft now have free seat-back or streaming entertainment; JetBlue has free Wi-Fi, and USB sockets or power outlets are increasingly in evidence.

And, on a huge number of flights, whether on a CRJ or on a 777, you have the option to pay a small sum — usually a good bit less than your savings compared with 20 years ago — for an extra legroom economy product like United’s Economy Plus, Delta’s Economy Comfort or American’s Main Cabin Extra.


DOT data

Let’s take a look at the US’ five busiest air routes and the price Delta quotes for Economy Comfort — which generally gives a 35-inch pitch, or 9.4 percent more than the max you could find in economy twenty years ago, and also throws in priority boarding for you and your carry-on — for a flight this Valentine’s Day, booking just over a month out:

San Francisco to LA? $9.

New York to Miami? $49.

New York to LA? $99 (and that includes a wrap, booze and a sleep kit).

Chicago to New York? $29

New York to Orlando? $39.

Let’s wrap it up: if you want to keep the $65 by which airfares have dropped in twenty years, you can. Imagine how many more people can now afford to fly who previously couldn’t. And US airlines’ generous carry-on rules, and their co-branded credit card bag fee exemptions, mean that you can avoid a bag fee by being thrifty.

Alternatively, you can spend some of it for more spacious seats than twenty years ago, or on better food, or on Wi-Fi. Or just watch some TV on the seat-back or via the increasingly available streaming entertainment.

Flying in economy is cheaper than it’s ever been. It can also be more comfortable than it’s ever been — and for no more money than standard economy used to cost. Self-appointed “passenger advocates” need to stop blasting airlines for finding ways to make flying cheaper for passengers who want lower fares.


  1. StanislausBabalistic

    Your numbers are off. Seats are much smaller than you claim here. And when airlines are making record profits and still charging massive fuel surcharges despite falling fuel prices, it’s pretty clear that it’s not the fault of the consumer to “pay more.”

    “As indicated, all of the Big Three—American, Delta and United—now offer at least some aircraft with a seat pitch of only 30 inches in economy. In years past, 31 or 32 inches were the absolute minimums. What’s more, the roomiest pitch offered by the Big Three and Southwest (31-33 inches) are now tighter than they were at all four carriers in recent years, by anywhere from 2 to 5 inches…
    Simply put, the roomiest economy seats you can book on the nation’s four largest airlines are narrower than the tightest economy seats offered in the 1990s. The worst seats today measure either 17 or 17.2 inches, when about 19 was as tight as it got through the 1990s. In fact, even the widest seats for sale in economy today—from 17 to 18.5 inches —would not have been offered several years ago.”


    • You seem to be complaining that I didn’t take the current absolute mainline minimum (30″), which I did, even though it is installed only on remarkably few aircraft. You also seem to be suggesting that 32″ isn’t a generous historical minimum, which it is, even if we take that (questionably accurate) chart as read: of the 24 historical airline/year data points, just four of them have 32″ as a minimum — and only two of those are within the last twenty years, with one of those being during AA’s admirable yet ultimately unsuccessful More Room Throughout Coach experiment. Has minimum legroom shrunk? Yes. Has it shrunk by as much as fares? No.

      The methodology of that columnist’s width measurements is also deeply questionable: throughout this time period, the 707-727-757-737 narrowbodies have shared the exact same fuselage width and the exact same six-abreast seat width. If that writer found 19″ seats on a Boeing narrowbody fuselage, then their measurement was off — by a full foot. Widebodies are the same, with the exception of the ten-abreast 77W and refitted 772 operated by American, and United’s 787, the issues with which have been covered extensively here and elsewhere.

      I also note that he only went back with details for AA, DL, UA and WN — not any of the dozens of airlines that used to operate and now make up those four airlines. Moreover, SeatGuru’s data is rife with errors and can’t be counted upon to be accurate.

      And fuel surcharges are not linked to fuel prices — and practically never have been. They’re a dynamic pricing adjustment tool that lets airlines tinker with their systemwide pricing without having to refile every single fare bucket price.

  2. Alex

    In addition to Stan’s astute observations, there are other factors that you complete ignore. First, business travelers are often not allowed by their companies to purchase upgrades. True that some of them are able to achieve frequent flier status, but many do not fly enough to get to levels that gain seat upgrades. Those of us well over 6′ are left with the choice of cramming into a tinier than ever seat or paying out of our own pockets for the extra room.

    And these increasingly cramped seats raise safety concerns, too. Escaping from such tightly backed seats in the event of an emergency is challenging. Imagining escaping when the seats in front of you are reclined is unimaginable. Then there’s the issue of blood clots due to inability to move. That’s a serious issue and one I’m sure we’ll see appear in the form of a lawsuit at one point or another. And plain old leg cramps and bashed knees are a chronic problem from anyone over average height.

    Then there’s the issue of bag check fees. These fees have the side effect of prompting many more people to carry their bags on. This slows down the boarding process significantly. So even if you pay the fee or have a rewards card that allows you to check, you’re still impacted. Moreover, the overhead bins now fill up quickly, often leaving those who prefer to carry on being forced to check.

    I could go on and on. Ultimately, the airlines have a perverse disincentive to make passengers as uncomfortable as possible so they’re willing to pay for just to not be miserable. That’s a really messed up business model.

  3. John Fickelstein

    Data seem problematic. Have the number of flights increased or decreased each year? What if a short-haul carrier came to market and boosted the number of low fares? You can’t just take an average every year and not look at the flights and durations.

  4. ErikTheBlue

    It would be interesting to also see here how much the average weight and size of passengers has increased throughout these years.
    Perhaps a 17 inch seat “back then” would not have been so bad to a person weighing 150 lbs. But if your average passenger is now weighing in at 200 or 250 lbs. (or more, which is by far not as uncommon anymore as it used to be), then that same seat will likely feel like a straightjacket to today’s “average passenger”.
    Moreover, if you’ve ever been stuck inbetween two larger passengers in a middle seat on a long haul flight, you’ll most certainly become very homesick for the “old days” pdq!