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COMMONS MAGAZINE

The Slow Unnatural Death of Our Personal Space

Deregulation brings us cramped airplane seats and increased TV ads

The skies and airwaves are commons owned by all of us together. That’s the reason why airlines and broadcasting were once regulated—to protect the public’s interest. Yet the deregulation mania of recent decades means that we are now crammed into increasingly uncomfortable airplane seats and subjected to ever-more TV commercials. This amounts to the end of personal space, warns astute social observer David Morris, even in places that actually belong to us. — Jay Walljasper

The natural tendency of the private sector, when unrestrained, is to strip us of our personal physical and psychic space. The clearest examples may be found in the air travel and broadcasting industries.

Fly the Claustrophobic Skies

When it comes to air travel, private airline companies’ profits depend on maximizing revenue per cubic inch of space inside a plane.

Fifty years ago, when regulated airlines competed primarily on service rather than price, expanding personal space was part of their strategy for attracting customers. As the Wall Street Journal reports, seats on the first Boeing 707 were 17-inches wide, a dimension based on the width of a US Air Force pilot’s hips. In the 1970s and 1980s seat width increased to 18 inches and in the early 2000s, seats on the new Boeing 777 and Airbus 380 were widened still further to 18.5 inches.

But today the increased concentration in the airline industry set in motion by airline deregulation has reversed this dynamic. Today just 4 airlines control 85 percent of the national market. In many major airports, a single company may account for 80 percent of the flights. Their near monopoly power has allowed airline companies to boost revenue by adding a seat in every row and in some cases adding rows too. This is achieved by shrinking seat width and pitch and narrowing aisles.

The WSJ notes that new Boeing 777 and 787 Dreamliners may have 17-inch-wide seats. Seats on a new Airbus A330 can be as narrow as 16.7 inches.

Airlines not only squeeze our waists and shoulders, they cramp our legs as well. Independent Traveler reports that over the last two decades the space between your seat and the one in front of you has been reduced from 34 inches to as little as 30 inches. Some airlines shoehorn passengers into 28 inches.

While the private sector shrinks our personal physical space, our need for space has grown. In the last 4 decades the average American man and woman’s waistline has increased by 2.5 inches and their weight by over 20 pounds. Their height has increased by more than an inch. The result is that for a growing number of people air travel now feels like persecution.

Incredible Shrinking Television

Meanwhile when it comes to broadcasting, corporations strive to maximize revenue per cubic inch of screen and minute of air time. They accomplish this by delivering less content per hour and by making it more difficult for us to effectively watch the content that is delivered.

In the 1960s a typical hour-long show would run 51 minutes excluding advertisements. Today it is down to 42 minutes. Every ten minutes or so commercials interrupt programs, disrupting their story lines and dramatic rhythm.

Even more ominously, broadcasters are afflicting us with interruptions even when the program is on. This psychic assault began about a decade ago when semi transparent station logos appeared in a corner of the screen. Then came pop up graphics, at first used only for promos but more recently, for ads as well. The industry calls these “lower thirds”, referring to the amount of visual real estate they occupy, although some are beginning to encroach on the upper two thirds as well.

For the viewer pop ups have two pernicious impacts. They shrink the screen. More significantly, they make it virtually impossible to focus on the program.

What Should We Do?

That we are not seriously debating the possibility of taking collective action to recover our physical and psychic space is a testament to the power of the reigning pro-private ideology.

We know what needs to be done.

1) Establish minimum standards for the personal physical space airlines must provide passengers.

2) Limit the amount of commercials and commercial or promo interruptions on TV.

Although no nation to my knowledge still regulates airline seat space, many do intervene to limit commercials. The FCC already does this for children’s programming. The European Union caps commercials at 12 minutes per hour. Many EU countries embrace even higher standards. The UK limits prime time ads to no more than 8 minutes per hour. Denmark allows ads only between programs.

We should also reclaim the entire screen for program viewing.

What would be the impact? Revenue for broadcasters and airlines would modestly decline. These industries can afford it. Revenue from cable TV soared from $100 million in 1981 to $10.5 billion in 2000 to $21 billion in 2010. In 2013 airlines earned record profits and this year are expected to do even better.

Rather than reduce profits airlines and cable companies will likely raise their rates a bit. That’s not ideal, but to me it is a small price to pay to preserve our dignity and self-respect.

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