The story of your shrinking airline seat is not just the story of corporate dominance but also of shrinking of economic thought. The debate, and discussion around fair economics needs to be brought back if we are to face the challenges posed by AI, and rising challenges posed by them.
Airplanes were once how the luxurious bunch traveled, you could travel in style and be very comfortable stretch, have amenities that modern everyday travellers like us can just dream about. Today when you get into an airplane there is a very slight chance you are excited by the prospect, and there has been a new word that has been coined about the surge of anger in the airplane called air rage.
So, how did we get here? It begins sometime in the 1970's when it was felt that the governments had no business regulating air-travel, under the able leadership of a neoliberal economist Alfred Kahn the airline industry was de-regulated in 1978.
Just before the deregulation the length between rows technically called the seat pitch was 35 inches. It was sufficient for a six feet tall person to stretch their legs and not cause discomfort to anyone around them. Today the seat pitch has shrunk from 35 to 31 inches, the width of the seat has narrowed from 18.5 to 17 inches. The result has been that air travel has become a constant spinning wheel of choices, if you want ‘extra’ legroom you could choose a “premium economy”, which is what economy used to be, you could choose a series of extras, which if looked at critically are not choices actually but are sold as such. The result has been that though the deregulation has made air travel more convenient and accessible it has also made being competitive in this space harder for companies. The impact of deregulation has been that airlines everywhere have to compete for passengers and the prices keep on playing see-saw, but only large companies effectively stave off the pressure. Or if you are an ultra low cost airline such as Cebu Air. Cebu Air in the Philippines has proposed moving kitchens, and even toilets to accommodate 460 passengers in a plane designed for 440.
The economist who paved the way for this deregulation was convinced that this was the right step to take, and this policy has boosted air travel. The consequence of this policy has been far reaching, air line travels in the United States meant that other economical mode of transports were not fully realised. Today the outlying airports in the United States have either no connectivity or they are asked to pay by the airlines to service some of these airports. The Federal Aviation Administration has gone on the record to state that though it is harder to evacuate a crammed airplane it would not regulate airline-seat size! This does not take into account the challenges these airlines pose for climate change by being the only viable option for long term travel.
The point of this piece is not to point out the inherent constriction of air travel. We are all familiar with it. The problem is that good economic ideas need a shelf life, and need to be constantly evaluated. The airline deregulation was directly responsible for deregulation of banks, water supply, energy, and any other deregulation that you could care to name. The result from all of these deregulation exercises has not been very positive. Today the policy makers and other responsible bodies are trying to think about regulating AI, there is a need to have multiple ideas present in the room to think about AI regulations and not just the large companies that have a key stake in promoting these technologies. The airline deregulation was supposed to make air travel more equitable, almost four decades later, an evaluation by Professor Morgan Hicks of Vanderbilt Law School has the following to say about airlines and their role in promoting inequality.
The famous 20th-century US economist Kenneth Boulding observed wryly that anyone who seriously believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world “is either a madman or an economist”. The implications of economic orthodoxy are manifold and the impact especially the bad ones have had is manifold, therefore before we take positions on AI or any of the big ticket problems of the future let us build in a sunset clause to policies. For it is easier to deregulate something but history shows regulating it again is often impossible.