Washington — The average airline seat in coach class today has only 31 to 32 inches between it and the seat in front of it. These chairs can recline between 4 to 6 inches, which invades the personal space of the person in back. As one customer puts it, "What airlines don't realize is that the seat space is not just the seat you sit in, but the space around you. For the price of a ticket, you should expect a minimum comfort zone."
That space has shrunk. In 1990, the average space between seats was about 34 to 36 inches. The seats themselves have gotten smaller as well. A "Consumer Reports Travel Letter" stated that coach and economy class seats have narrowed in the last 30 years. In 1977, an average Boeing 747 had nine seats across. The same 747 today has 10. DC10s and L-1011s have increased their seating capacity in the same way.
Responding to increased complaints from passengers, some airlines in February of this year promised to expand the space allotted each seat. American Airlines said that it would refit some 700 planes, giving coach passengers 33 to 36 inches of leg room, reducing the planes' seating capacity by 6.4 percent. United Airlines has created an Economy Plus section on their planes, where passengers have 35 to 36 inches of leg room.
Many people credit the poor service given by airlines to the lack of competition in the industry. The Department of Transportation has reported that out of 18,717 domestic flights with daily service, about one-third are controlled by a single carrier. And this lack of competition is the irony of deregulation.
the Marshall Plan
Vicente Fox was elected president of Mexico in July, and while he will not assume office until December, he is already working to strengthen Mexico's relations with its North American neighbors. He met with President Clinton last week to propose a European Union-style cooperation between Mexico, Canada and the United States.
But the disparity of wealth will not soon end, and so the migration will not end, always aggravating relations between Mexico and America. How will Fox solve this? He has yet to say. Perhaps that will come out of the upcoming meetings. And the most likely scenario will call for a sort of Marshall Plan, similar to what the United States did for Germany after World War II. It would entail massive U.S. investment in Mexico with little asked in return, but that will be a hard sale to the American public, which has become accustomed to having a weaker, poorer nation to the south.
Why Europe's train system works and ours doesn't
Europe has the most extensive high-speed rail network in the world. Rail travel there is fast, comfortable and punctual, with trains to virtually all regions and cities on the continent. Many trains in Europe travel in excess of 100 mph. The Eurostar, for example connecting Great Britain, France and Belgium speeds along at 135 mph, taking only three hours to reach Paris from London. The German ICE train offers service to all major cities in Germany, and they travel up to 174 mph. And France's TGV trains travel upwards of 317 mph while the regular trains run at 186 mph.
Rail travel in Europe is reliable. Train stations are usually located near the heart of cities and towns and are easily accessible by public transportation. Europe's collection of trains represents one of the best and most comfortable in the world. Rail tickets are inexpensive. Many countries offer discounts, specials and rail passes that make rail travel much more appealing than travel by air.
But the primary reason that rail travel in Europe is so economical is because it is subsidized and controlled by government. The SNCF, for example, is run by the French government and the tracks those trains ride on are also owned and operated by the government. Perhaps America should enter into a management agreement with SNCF or BritRail.
Jack Anderson and Douglas Cohn are columnists for United