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Do Flyers Have a Basic Human Right to Fly First Class?

Anyone who flies coach probably wishes he or she had more legroom. Going “cattle class” isn’t fun. But for most people, it’s better than not going at all, which for most travelers is the real alternative.

For decades, the Civil Aeronautics Board regulated airfares, bolstering corporate profits. Airlines competed on service rather than price. Business travelers, whose companies paid the bill, enjoyed uncrowded luxury in the air.

It wasn’t as grand for anyone on a budget. You were more likely to drive, especially if you had a family. You flew to get somewhere fast — maybe a funeral, or to head overseas. After all, there’s no autobahn over the Atlantic Ocean.

There is no right to any particular amount of space on an airplane. 

Airline deregulation transformed flying: discount airlines emerged; legacy carriers were forced to compete on price; airports filled with leisure travelers; and flying became possible for even those of modest means. Everyone was happy — except the old business flyers, who now had to deal with the ill-dressed hoi polloi, sporting flip-flops and tank tops, and bringing babies and diaper bags.

The result was also financial murder for the traditional carriers. The industry as a whole has made little net profit since deregulation. Earnings have finally climbed in the era of multiple fees and minimal legroom. It isn’t fun being crammed into a metal tube zooming through the air, but most flyers still seem more interested in price than comfort.

Now FlyersRights.org wants the government to mandate minimum seat width and pitch. (That might mean banning small planes — prop or jet — entirely.) The group’s president, Paul Hudson, argued that safety and health are at stake, with emergency evacuation made more difficult and deep vein thrombosis made more common. Another organization, Travelers United, urged the government to “address” the issue.

Social psychologist Joanie…

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