International Bill of Rights for the Passengersby Opinion Express August 19, 2019 0 comments
There is little doubt that mass production of commercial airliners has made flying more affordable but is it time for an international bill of rights for the passengers?
Ostensibly, the Airbus A320neo series of aircraft is an incremental change over the extremely successful Airbus A320 series of commercial aircraft built by the European manufacturer, one of the most successful airliners in aviation history. By using next-generation high-bypass turbofan engines, including some with a gearing mechanism to make them even more efficient, these aircraft are able to burn 15-20 per cent less fuel per passenger kilometre than the previous generation of the same aircraft. The increased fuel efficiency not only adds to the profit of the airlines but also allows some to pass on the cost benefits of the more economical engines to fare-paying passengers. These cost reductions will make flying even more democratic.
But not all the savings are from the engines as weight is of critical concern for airlines. They have saved weight not just by using exotic composite materials in parts of the construction but also in the cabin. Then there’s also the fact that the weight of installed seats has been brought down. Thanks to low-cost airlines, which do not offer hot-food options, the amount of space in the galleys for food carts and ovens has come down. This coupled with narrower, slimmer seats and a tight spacing between them, the so-called “seat pitch”, have meant that some low-cost carriers like IndiGo are able to offer an additional row of six seats on the A320neo over the previous generation. That may not seem like much but in a cut-throat world of low-cost airlines, where margins are frightfully tight, an additional row of costs at little-to-no-additional cost on a similar aircraft can make a profitable difference.
However, when you fly an A320neo configured with 31 rows instead of the usual 30 on the previous generation, now called the A320ceo, you realise another way they made space for the additional row. The rear toilets have been removed, or rather the rear toilets as we knew them. They are now horribly narrow, best described as a tiny broom closet where a part of the galley used to be. To save space further, the cabin attendant seats are attached to the front door. The toilet is an affront to the dignity of some human beings because there is no way a large person can possibly use it.
One could argue that most A320neo flights are relatively short domestic hops but this thinking ignores the fact that several domestic routes are touching three hours of flight time and with delays on the ground and in the air, thanks to air traffic congestion, it could be four-five hours between the time a passenger can use toilets attached to mother earth. That, you will have to admit, is a fair bit of time. The other problem is that because of the A320neo’s new fuel economical engines, coupled with the fact that it has slightly better fuel capacity, it can fly longer than the A320ceo. This is particularly evident in the fact that earlier this year, during the Paris Air Show, Airbus announced an extremely long-range version of the bigger brother of the A320neo, the A321neo, called the A321neo XLR. With an announced range of 7,400 km, the plane could potentially fly between Delhi to most of western Europe, carrying a full load of 244 passengers if configured in a dense all-economy configuration. That is eight hours of flight time and possibly nine to 10 hours between the time a passenger boards the plane to the time he/she disembarks.
There is no doubt that an aircraft like the A321XLR has immense potential — not only can it serve major Indian cities to smaller destinations in Europe and north-east Asia, it can also connect smaller Indian airports like that of Pune, which has a short runway, to major aviation hubs. But if the thought of spending eight hours on a narrow-body plane was not bad enough, the thought of spending time on such a plane with cramped toilets — just three of them or an average of one per 80 passengers — and the possibility of poor toilet hygiene by some fellow passengers make for a truly terrifying experience. One cannot even imagine how the poor cabin attendant, who will have to sit on that seat attached to the toilet door, will feel at the end of a flight. After a long haul, that should qualify for a distress allowance.
Which is why, may be it is time for civil aviation authorities across the world to step in for the passengers. The lackadaisical attitude of regulators in certifying the Boeing 737 Max, the American Federal Aviation Administration being a case in point, has allowed years of reduced passenger comfort to pass unchallenged. It is not just the overwing exits that are ridiculously small but things like smaller seats and cramped toilets are problems that need to be redressed.
Again, an argument will be made that passengers have a choice; they can pay more and fly on an airline that offers better facilities like a larger toilet and more space between rows. But as the collapse of Jet Airways and Kingfisher Airlines proves, the aviation sector is in dire straits, forcing even larger airlines to offer fewer amenities or cutting back on those that remain. Even if Air India, which also operates A320neo aircraft and has not crimped on the toilet size or passenger meals, does offer competitive fares, the crisis won’t blow away.
There is not always a choice but to travel on a low-cost airline, which wishes to fit as many travellers on seats as possible, either for time reasons or just because of the fact that they dominate the skies. This is true not just in India but pretty much everywhere else in the world, too.
The race to the bottom will continue unless authorities step in. Regulations need to be set for minimum seat pitches being allowed on aircraft and the size of toilets as well as the doors. The fact is that thanks to better nutrition, an average human is getting larger and while the convenience of a non-stop flight might override other concerns for some passengers, everyone, who flies frequently or infrequently, will eventually need to use the facilities on a plane one day, and that day, they will understand why this is important. Hopefully, that day will not be too late and small airline toilets would not have become fait accompli.
(The writer is Managing Editor, The Pioneer)
Writer: Kushan Mitra
Courtesy: The Pioneer