Airlines add, adjust amenities inside jets
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CHICAGO -- After decades of relatively little change, aircraft cabins in the United States are undergoing a renaissance that promises to make the flying experience more comfortable and enjoyable for passengers, especially for those at the front of the plane.
Major airlines are taking delivery of new airplanes with well-thought-out cabin amenities. At the same time, they're spending hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade the interiors of existing planes.
"We've seen in the last year or so some tremendous improvements in the passenger experience," said Mary Kirby, editor-in-chief of Airline Passenger Experience magazine. "Airlines were rather stagnant for many years in terms of what they offered."
Some seats on long flights will recline into flat beds. Some overhead bins will be better designed and larger. Seats will have on-demand movies and television, in addition to power outlets. Cabins will be equipped with wireless Internet access and mood lighting.
And, yes, some seats on these new and updated planes will have more legroom.
But airline executives facing stiff competition and high fuel costs are not making pricey changes out of benevolence. The best goodies are reserved for passengers toward the front of the plane, sanctuary for travelers willing to pay more or those with elite frequent-flier status.
"This really boils down to a desire to win high-value customers," said Rob Friedman, American Airlines vice president of marketing, referring to his airline's attempt to woo mostly frequent-flying business travelers.
Personal space is the most coveted of passenger amenities -- and the most expensive.
"What people care first and foremost about is getting the best possible price, and then they want to make sure that when they stand up from their airplane ride they can still feel their knees," said Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst with Atmosphere Research Group.
An aircraft fuselage has only so many square feet, so seat configuration is a zero-sum puzzle. If an airline gives more space in one section, it must recover it from somewhere else or forgo revenue by removing seats.
"Airlines personify the saying 'robbing Peter to pay Paul,' " Mr. Harteveldt said. "If Paul wants more legroom, Peter is going to have less."
Many airlines now allow you to pay for more legroom. United Airlines was the pioneer and calls it Economy Plus. American calls it Main Cabin Extra, Delta Air Lines calls it Economy Comfort and JetBlue Airways calls it Even More Space. Some airlines throw in a few extras, too. For example, American allows priority boarding with upgrades to Main Cabin Extra, which it sells for $8 to $108 per flight.
"Legroom is clearly what people value," said Joe Brancatelli, a business-travel writer and editor of JoeSentMe.com. "They want it for free, of course, but they will pay for it."
The ultimate in legroom is lying down. For international and some coast-to-coast domestic flights, airlines are adding seats that recline into beds. Early versions had the head somewhat elevated, but the new standard is full-flat seats that recline parallel with the cabin floor.
American's refresh of its two-aisle Boeing 777s will squeeze in another seat across coach, going from its current nine seats wide to 10. United's new Boeing 787 Dreamliner will have nine seats across, compared with two Japanese airlines that already use the plane configured with eight seats across. Southwest's new planes will have thinner seats but will add another row. That means legroom, which is called seat pitch in the business, will go from 32 inches to 31. And seats will recline 2 inches instead of 3. In August, United confirmed that it, too, will switch to slimmer seats on its narrow-body Airbus planes. The changeover, which will allow it to add a row of seats, begins next year.
JetBlue Airways and WestJet in August said they will add more legroom for those willing to pay extra at the expense of back-of-the-bus passengers who will be slightly more cramped as a result.
As people carry more mobile devices and expect to be constantly connected, airlines are adding wireless Internet and standard power outlets in the seat to keep those devices functioning at 30,000 feet. For those off the clock, airlines are offering on-demand movies and television, usually for an extra charge.
The good news is that many of the technology upgrades are available in coach, too.
"All this in-flight entertainment and connectivity give the airlines the ability to distract passengers' brains from the pain of being in these ultrasnug seat pitches in economy class," Ms. Kirby said.
Wi-Fi, in particular, is becoming a standard offering on mainline aircraft; regional jets generally don't offer Internet access, with Delta a notable exception.
For those who don't bring their own screens, seat-back monitors are becoming common, with some in premium-class seats as large as 15 inches diagonally.
American will even offer premium passengers on certain flights use of a Samsung Galaxy tablet computer and pricey Bose noise-canceling headphones.
In-cabin ambience will be improving on many flights.
For example, new workhorse Boeing 737 planes are likely to have the Boeing Sky Interior, which evokes a greater sense of space. The interior has been ordered as an option on more than 90 percent of new planes and first started showing up in the U.S. in late 2010 on Continental Airlines, said Kent Craver, Chicago-based Boeing's regional director for passenger satisfaction and revenue.
The Boeing Sky Interior includes sophisticated LED color-changing lighting, along with new side panels and overhead bins, all of whose lines and contours are designed to work together.
It's easy to pooh-pooh things like LED lighting and the architectural design of the cabin, but Ms. Kirby said it makes a "massive difference."
"There is something to be said for the perception of space," she said. "I don't think it gets enough attention."
Airlines that now have planes with the Boeing Sky Interior include United, by virtue of its merger with Continental; American; Southwest; and Alaska Airlines.
First Published September 6, 2012 12:00 am