Tuesday, May 21, 2013
By GREGORY KARP Chicago Tribune
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.
The updated first class section of a United Boeing 777 offers more leg room, seats that go completely flat for sleeping and nicer remote controls for movies. But the added space in first and business classes means more seats squeezed into coach sections.
Phil Velasquez/Chicago Tribune
Seat-back monitors are becoming more common on new aircraft, but many airlines charge for on-demand movies and television.
Phil Velasquez/Chicago Tribune
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.
Upgrades in some cases mean economy-class, believe it or not, will become more cramped. Fortunately, some in-cabin perks will trickle back to coach to distract attention from snug confines.
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 forego revenue by removing seats.
"Airlines personify the saying 'robbing Peter to pay Paul,'" 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.
In reality, this new class of seat is what business class used to be.
"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."
Many airlines are eliminating traditional first class.
"Business class has become so elaborate, you don't need first class anymore," Brancatelli said.
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.
"Now, the cost of doing business for long-haul business class is fully flat seats, and we're seeing that across the board," Kirby said.
After eliminating many economy-class services, such as free food and free checked bags, some U.S. airlines are squeezing even more from coach, further reducing legroom as they install more chairs or yield the space to higher-paying customers.
"Everybody's upgrading their business-class cabins, but it's coming at the expense of coach," Brancatelli said.
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