AA Adds Room In Coach; BA, 4th Class, Biz Comforts
<B>AA Adds Room In Coach; BA, 4th Class, Biz Comforts</B>
By Megan Hjermstad & David Jonas
American Airlines and British Airways independently announced massive reconfiguration plans for their fleets, targeted at business and economy passengers and hailed by many as a step in the right direction in addressing consumers' concerns.
American said it will remove approximately 7,200 coach seats from its entire fleet of more than 700 jet aircraft--or 6.4 percent of total capacity--in an unparalleled move to provide greater comfort and more leg room for coach passengers. At the same time, AA is controlling capacity without sacrificing routes or frequencies.
"In the context of the industry, we are a relatively low load factor airline, which has meant that the last six to 12 seats on most airplanes are not utilized," said Craig Kreeger, vice president and general sales manager, citing AA's Dallas/Fort Worth-Chicago route, which offers 24 daily flights but runs a load factor near 60 percent. "But the goal is a slight increase in market share of the most valued business customers. We don't need to charge each one more, we just need a few more of them."
The carrier will increase the seat pitch throughout the coach cabin from the present industry standard of 31 inches to at least 33 inches and up to 36 inches of space. When the project is completed, about 58 percent of American's coach seats will have a pitch of at least 34 inches--more room in the economy cabin than on any other major carrier.
"While it may not sound like a dramatic change, it does provide a lot more space and the ability to get more work done in a coach class seat," Kreeger said. For example, two rows equaling 10 seats will be taken out of each of American's MD80s, which account for 37 percent of the airline's jet fleet.
"The number of passengers won't change but there will be fewer seats. It's just a mathematical exercise," said Michael Boyd, president of The Boyd Group. "It might increase traffic, but seat space remains the single biggest cause of customer dissatisfaction. Customers are tired of feeling like a sardine."
American relied on the feedback of several travel managers in its decision to remove seats in favor of added leg room, and already has received high praise from buyers. "This is an exciting precedent for an airline to be setting," said Tony Milikin, vice president of purchasing at Sealy in Greensboro, N.C. "The lack of space in coach has long been a complaint of my travelers and this move by AA has shown that they actually listen to their passengers' needs."
Milikin added that AA's move will help travel managers build compliance within their corporations. "The other airlines will have to follow suit or lose business travel market share," he said. At press time, no other major carriers had followed American's lead, though several said they were examining the idea.
American will spend approximately $70 million on the conversion and overall will invest more than $400 million to refurbish interiors and install new seats. The next generation coach seats are ergonomically designed, with adjustable leather headrests. Passengers will have more room to eat, sleep or use their laptops with newly installed power ports in selected rows.
American began the overhaul last week and the first revamped aircraft, a 129-seat MD-80, began service Feb. 12 on the West Coast. The airline by this summer expects to have modified half of its 609 domestic two-class aircraft and the remainder by November. Work on 98 three-class international airplanes will begin this fall for completion next year.
Once completed, the initiative will have outmatched rival United Airlines' Economy Plus program--launched in August and now nearly half complete--which offers seats with added leg room only in the front of the coach cabin to full-fare passengers and the most frequent flyers (<I>BTN</I>, Sep. 6, 1999).
"This is a huge jump for American and a real embarrassment for their friends at United," Boyd said. "American can offer it to everyone; United can only dole it out to people. They will have another inventory to control and another area for customer complaint."
American had looked at United's coach class reconfiguration, but opted against it. "Our changes will provide a much more consistent customer service and not create a challenge in operation or on the airplane making sure the right people get in the right seat," Kreeger said. "And its a value-add for the corporate traveler, which should make it easier for the corporate travel manager to do business with us."
American, however, did note that on flights where load factors increase, more passengers inevitably will be stuck in a middle seat. Also, Kreeger acknowledged that on the busiest flights, there likely will be fewer seats available at the very lowest fare.
Meanwhile, British Airways late last month announced plans for a fourth class of service covering the ground between the business and economy cabins. The new class is part of a $970 million investment targeting "the most profitable segments of the market," and also includes a revamped business class, which includes fully flat beds. The carrier said the entire initiative will be funded out of existing budgets.
BA's fourth service class, dubbed World Traveler Plus, will offer bigger seats with more leg room, in-seat power ports and telephones, enhanced food service and extra carry-on baggage space all in a dedicated cabin.
"This is not aimed at people traveling in our Club World business cabin, but at people who travel in economy and are asking for extra space and privacy at an affordable premium," British Airways officials said during an online chat session with the media following the announcement.
That affordable premium will come in the form of full-fare economy fares as compared with any other advanced or discounted coach fares. A BA spokesperson added that World Traveler Plus seats will be accessible to business travelers whose companies have negotiated rates for economy travel.
Reflecting its emphasis on higher-yield passengers, and to make room for the wider World Traveler Plus seats--30 on B747s and 24 on B777s--BA will remove an average of 50 economy seats per aircraft. United similarly removed a row per plane, on average, to install Economy Plus on 450 of its aircraft.
British Airways' Club World business class cabin, meanwhile, will be transformed into a "lounge in the sky" with a nontraditional configuration including both forward- and rear-facing arm-chair style seats that convert to flat beds. The carrier said that the many travelers preferring to face backwards will be accommodated as much as possible.
Improved Club World amenities include 18 television and film channels, power ports, higher quality food and doubled carry-on baggage limits. Also, new departure lounges and curbside checkin will arrive at London Heathrow and New York JFK.
The newly enhanced cabins will arrive first this summer on New York-London flights aboard eight B777s and B747s, followed by rollouts to other destinations on the remainder of the international fleet.
British Airways also will make improvements in the main economy cabin, such as providing seatback video screens for every passenger, similar to what is being provided in first class. BA also will give its Concorde product new seats, interiors and bathrooms.