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The Economic Case Against Leg Room Being a 'Human Right'

09/24/2015 08:05 EDT | Updated 10/30/2017 19:46 EDT
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I almost spit out my coffee the other morning when I stumbled upon this piece by a fellow named Christopher Elliott. In it, he argued that having enough room for your legs on an airplane should be a "human right."

I'm not kidding. You can read the whole thing here.

A source in the article says that "laissez-faire fanatics and most airlines are against all regulation." Yeah, right. So, I guess one needs to be a laissez-faire fanatic to oppose such a foolish idea?

"It sounds almost laughable next to other basic human rights," admits the author himself, at least. But what's more laughable (and quite sad) is the complete lack of understanding about a fundamental economic concept: costs.

If a new regulation imposes additional costs on an industry -- as would be the case if we were to enforce this new "human right" -- one would have to be incredibly ignorant of basic economic realities to somehow believe that these costs will not make their way into the pricing of airline tickets. The issue is not whether or not airline passengers should have a "right" to more leg room, but whether or not they are willing to pay for it.

For example, a round-trip plane ticket from Montreal to Paris with a well-known airline will cost you, in June 2016, $891 in economy class. The seat pitch (a rough measure of legroom) will be of 31 inches. If you choose premium economy class, this will set you back $1,412, and you'll get a comfortable 38 inches of seat pitch. If you choose to go business class, the ticket will cost $4,696, and you'll enjoy a wider, lie-flat seat.

Now, if the government imposes a new condition that applies to all sections of the plane, it will increase all prices. Would you rather pay $891 for your round-trip ticket or $4,696?

I myself am 6 foot 1 inch tall and weigh 255 pounds. The lack of legroom in planes bothers me, too. And as a consumer, I would certainly appreciate it if there would be a law that forced airlines to give me more space. But would this new regulation mandate a minimum space based on my needs? After all, it would be a "basic human right."

One has to be willfully ignorant to not understand that this type of regulation, if adopted, would be a nightmare to implement and would raise the cost of airline tickets everywhere. And it would do so in a relatively economically-fragile industry -- there have been 189 airline bankruptcy filings in America alone since 1990.

As a matter of fact, let's not forget that even if certain fees have gone up in recent years, the per-mile cost of flying was also chopped in half from 1980 to 2012 following the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978.

To conclude with a bit of humor, and because sometimes it helps to put things back in perspective, let me add that the story mentioned above reminded me of a funny act by one of my favorite comedians, in which he rants against air passengers who sometimes complain too much.

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