Last week, Air India occupied special space in the media as it finished one year under its new ownership. A year ago, on January 27, 2022, Tata Group under the government-led divestment process, took over the operations of Air India and bought a 100% stake in full-service carrier Air India and its arm Air India Express. The group submitted the winning bid of Rs.18,000 crore as the enterprise value of Air India against a reserve price of Rs.12,906 crore. The bid comprised a payment of Rs.2,700 crore and retaining a debt of Rs.15,300 crore.
The takeover by Tata is being highlighted as the beginning of a new chapter in the history of Air India. In the pre-takeover era, the airline was not enjoying a good reputation for its below average performance.
The Tata tag, of course, has created waves for the airline as the general concept is that its performance vis a vis its customer service will improve. If timelines are taken into account, the airline has definitely shown improvement. Otherwise, Air India has been among the least punctual airlines in pre-takeover years.
The airline, as per reports, has slated the financial year 2023 more about setting the ground, process-related issues, getting fleet, and marketing. However, the major area where Tata Group can rewrite passenger convenience is the legroom. Over the years, the legroom on planes has been shrinking and is getting worse. The shrinking legroom has made air travel a test of physical endurance for the passengers.
Let me share a small but significant incident which took place on a plane. A few weeks back, I was traveling out of the country on an Air India plane. It was a non-stop 6 hour journey.
Midway, a passenger entered into an argument with the airline staff as he was severely complaining about tight legroom. The staff expressed their helplessness to address the issue and suggested that he lodge a complaint in this regard through the airline website.
However, they endorsed that the tight leg space on the plane is an issue and needs to be addressed for the sake of passengers’ convenience. Their own movement on the plane to serve passengers was not hassle free owing to the vanishing legroom.
On reaching the destination, a lady passenger while debarking the plane found her legs fearfully swollen. She also complained about a lot of inconvenience due to tight legroom. In fact, all the passengers were in discomfort, but preferred not to speak.
Even as I am not a frequent flier, I experienced the legroom being too tight to make physical movements comfortably. It was visible that more chairs were bolted in the existing space on the plane.
The shrinking legroom is not an issue with Air India alone. You will find all other airline brands having tight legroom. Actually huge surge in the number of fliers, especially the first time fliers, seems to have encouraged the airlines to pack more passengers.
Even as passengers are unhappy over the tight legroom, they digest their discomfort for the sake of low price fares. In other words, many people gladly put up with discomfort in exchange for low-price tickets. It is here the airlines take advantage and are bolting more chairs in the given space.
To be precise, seats on a plane have narrowed and less legroom is now the industry norm. As told by an industry expert, it’s no surprise that air rage most commonly occurs nowadays, especially in economy class. It is now common to come across incidents of flights forced to make unscheduled landings because passengers were bickering over reclining seats.
Meanwhile, as told by a medical doctor, getting squeezed into seats having tight legroom for hours at a time, bears potential health risk. The development of blood clots in the legs—a condition called deep vein thrombosis or DVT—is one of the major health risks of flying.
While these clots can cause pain and swelling in the area where they form, they tend to be harmless if they stay put. But if they travel up through the bloodstream to the lungs, they can cause a blockage—known as a pulmonary embolism—which prevents blood from flowing through and getting oxygenated, and can be life-threatening if not treated promptly.
The doctor says the risk of blood clots will increase as long as the seats remain small (or get smaller) and advises the fliers just to get up and walk around in the plane.
It is not health risk alone, the most disturbing of all is how tighter legroom impedes safe exit during an emergency evacuation. In case of an emergency, regulations are in place which require a full aircraft to be safely evacuated within a given timeline, and cramped seating threatens that benchmark.
The tight seat dimensions are also a concern for passengers with disabilities. It is an uphill task to transfer a passenger with disabilities from a wheelchair to a seat.
There are certain actions which airlines need to take on priority basis. Since the industry experts have continuously been voicing their concern over the tight airline seating and shrinking legroom on planes on an ongoing basis, it is urgent to impose a ban on the further shrinking of the seats.
The aviation regulator should conduct regular inspection of the seating design and capacity of the airlines. Even the regulator should revisit its regulations on seating capacity on a plane in line with its size and capacity. Planes flying on long distance routes need thorough monitoring of the regulator and in no case should allow planes with tight seating and squeezed legroom.
Since it is a life-threatening issue, action on these points needs to be taken on priority basis and revisiting rules will protect all air travelers.
The airlines in no case should be allowed to cram their passengers into tighter and more dangerous seating configurations to boost their financials. let it be clear that tight legroom on planes is more than just problematic, it is downright dangerous.
To conclude, an airline seat, particularly in economy class, has been losing value for decades now. Economy passengers’ money is losing value as it is not getting them the value as it used to when availing air travel facilities.
It is here Air India can take a lead and live up to its reputation and brand image by including the issue of dangerously tight legroom on its planes.
They should keep passenger convenience on top priority in their transformation strategy of the airline and revamp seating arrangements with more legroom. Let the Tata Group live up to their reputation and lead the change in the industry to mitigate the risks confronting air travelers.
(The views are of the author & not the institution he works for)
DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author.
The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.