Priceonomics

Photo credit: Kuster & Wildhaber Photography

Once you’ve been conditioned to wear a seat belt, it’s a bit disconcerting to find yourself in a situation without one. This author finds it strange to board a bus without seat belts, or remember back to riding school buses that didn’t have seat belts. 

In 2012, the CEO of the budget European airline Ryanair insisted that seat belts are equally unnecessary on planes. It’s “just a [expletive] bus with wings.” Why did he care? He wanted to pioneer a “standing room only” section on Ryanair flights. He imagines flyers holding onto overhead straps like riders on the subway in exchange for cheaper tickets.

Ryanair is in the class of airline known for making tickets appear appealing by charging high fees for printing out boarding passes or charging $80+ fees for checking a bag, and its CEO has led the charge in extracting every dollar from flights by threatening to charge for the bathroom. 

Given that CEO Michael O’Leary’s lavatories as profit centers plan proved to be just bluster, media wondered whether his standing room only proposal was a joke intended to garner free publicity. But the idea isn’t as loony as it might appear. The idea was (as far as we can tell) first proposed by a Chinese airline trying to figure out how to meet China’s surging demand for air travel in an industry where leasing or purchasing a new plane takes several years. Standing room only means more bodies per plane and lower costs. 

O’Leary also seems to have a point about safety. A major reason buses are often not required to have seat belts is that they are much safer than riding in a car (40 times safer according to the National Safety Council), a point that is equally true of plane travel, which is nearly much, much safer safer than riding in the average car (by perhaps a factor of 100). And while part of the safety of, say, a school bus is that children are compartmentalized by padded seats, it seems Ryanair may have made an attempt to meet safety regulators halfway with a proposal for a sort of standing, harnessed seat

As for catastrophic crashes, O’Leary makes the morbid observation:

“If there ever was a crash on an aircraft, God forbid, a seatbelt won’t save you… Seatbelts don't matter… You don't need a seatbelt on the London Underground. You don't need a seatbelt on trains which are travelling at 120mph and if they crash you're all dead..."

Ryanair would also only have the standing option for shorter routes that avoid “areas of huge turbulence around Europe.” 

Standing room only may seem like the last straw for customers fed up with being asked to pay for peanuts and other indignities. But a dirt cheap, standing room only ticket is responding to customers’ insensitivity to quality. 

As TIME and others have reported, Virgin America has consistently won awards as a “best airline” with top rated customer service, in-flight entertainment, cabin staff, and so on. Yet it has struggled to turn customers’ appreciation into actual profits, while budget airlines in the mold of Ryanair (like Spirit in the U.S.) have done relatively well. Flyers love to complain about budget airlines, but they keep coming back for the low fares. 

Similarly, Concorde planes offered supersonic transatlantic travel from 1976 until their retirement. But no one today is trying to lure customers with the promise of paying extra for superfast travel. 

Customers’ buying habits have spoken, and they want low prices, not quality. As O’Leary told reporters, "If you say to passengers it's £25 for the seat and £1 for the standing cabin, I guarantee we will sell the standing cabin first.” Expect to see standing room only sections discussed in the future and debated with regulators -- it may be the future of the buses of the sky. 

This post was written by Alex Mayyasi. Follow him on Twitter here or Google PlusTo get occasional notifications when we write blog posts, sign up for our email list.


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