American Airlines this week at the National Business Travel Association conference in Chicago is unveiling its new premium class long-haul product, which features a new lie-flat seat, a retrofitted cabin and expanded entertainment options, including a new portable video monitor.
American's refurbishments represent a new wave of business class enhancements among domestic legacy carriers, as Delta Air Lines and United Airlines also are engaged in premium class upgrades on international routes. The three carriers are the first majors to make significant investments in new premium class services since Northwest began installing new premium seating on aircraft in 2003 (BTN, Aug. 11, 2003).
American Airlines senior vice president of global sales David Cush said the upgrade has been a long time coming, considering American last overhauled business class about six years ago. The new cabin and services already are operational on one aircraft flying between Chicago and the United Kingdom and other aircraft will be joining its refurbished ranks beginning in September.
American Airlines is rolling out the new features in two phases, first on Boeing 767-300 aircraft in its fleet, which will be retrofitted by the end of the first quarter of next year, followed by its fleet's Boeing 777 aircraft, which are slated for completion by the end of 2007. American's 767-300 fleet is prominent on transatlantic routes as well as selected routes within the United States and Latin America. As announced last year, 20 additional American's Boeing 777s also will be equipped with first class Flagship Suite seating (BTN, Sept. 5, 2005).
"As we go in and put the new biz class seat in, we'll also upgrade all of our first class to Flagship Suite," Cush said. "We've had a mix of airplanes, some with just a traditional lie-flat first class seat and others with the Flagship Suite, which is our pod-like product. We're going to Flagship Suite on all of our 777s."
More than one month ago, American preliminarily rolled out the upgraded business class on flights from Chicago to Glasgow and Manchester to gain early feedback from frequent travelers and flight attendants in advance of a widescale rollout. The carrier said that it found some minor glitches and will apply the lessons learned from the pilot before fully rolling out the seat.
The carrier said greater business class demand has driven the upgrades, given the willingness of international travelers to place a higher premium on better services and amenities. At the same time, the carrier—like many of its legacy carrier counterparts—said international capacity has increased markedly. American noted that at the end of last year, international service represented nearly 35 percent of mainline capacity, an increase from 27.5 percent of capacity in 2002. "American's forecast for international capacity in 2006 is 37.1 percent, an almost 10 percent increase in the past four years," the carrier said in a statement.
With the greater level of capacity comes better service and American said it has kept the business traveler much in mind. American contracted Recaro Aircraft Seating Inc.—which beat out four other suppliers—to design the adjustable seat that can fold out into a full-flat bed, measuring 77 inches. American said the seat measures 20 inches wide, but "can be extended to 23 inches by raising the privacy divider and dropping down the outer armrest."
American said there are of 59 inches of legroom for each business class seat, but travelers can sacrifice some of the extra space, as seats can track forward up to 10 inches when they are upright. "Therefore you are no longer sitting directly next to a person," Cush said. Seats also include a 15-inch, fan-shaped privacy divider. While the carrier would not break out the entire investment it is making in the new premium class product, American said each pair of seats on the 767-300 costs about $50,000.
The seat also features two foldout trays—one affixed to back of the seat and the other a pullout from the armrest. The trays can be used independently or in tandem and yield 17 inches by 17 inches of workspace when adjoined.
"The seats are also bordered on the back by fixed shells, preventing the passenger in front from moving backward and encroaching on a fellow traveler's space," American said.
Other cabin enhancements include newly designed overhead bins, overhead lighting and power ports located in the seat-back shell.
Long-haul carriers have diverged in their approach to their seat-cum-bed offerings, with some opting for a full lie-flat option while others have employed a seat that, while at 180 degrees, rests at a slight incline. American has opted for the latter, saying that its tests showed there "was not a significant difference in comfort between fully flat and flat-at-an-angle seats" and the option allowed the carrier to maximize legroom without sacrificing the existing footprint of the cabin. As such, the number of business class seats will remain at 30 in 767-300 aircraft.
Entertainment options revolve around a 10.6-inch portable video monitor that can remain affixed to the seat back or be completely removed to view selections that include movies, daily news updates from Reuters, music, games and television programming. "One of the unique things about the monitor is that you can actually remove it from the shell and move it anywhere you want around your personal space. It's completely removable," Cush said. While in theory the monitors could be removed and viewed throughout the cabin—even the bathroom—he said, "We discourage that, but of course you can."
Delta COO Jim Whitehurst at an event in New York last month said the carrier also was making investments into its premium class products following what he said was a perception of neglect among the most frequent and high-level travelers.
To support the largest international expansion in its history, Delta said it has enhanced its leather sleeper seats, which the carrier already has begun to roll out as part of other new BusinessElite offerings on long-haul international flights. Delta said it is refurbishing the "business class experience" on 75 aircraft and is scheduling completion by the summer of 2007. As of last month, the carrier said a total of eight reconfigured Boeing 767-300ERs already are operational and that "Delta's remaining 67 internationally configured Boeing 767-300ER, 767-400ER and 777-200ER aircraft will be refitted by next summer."
Delta said that through improvements to its seat, passengers will enjoy 60 inches of legroom and a "wide-angle recline, with higher-rising leg rests and additional cushioning that includes memory foam under the knees for extra support, stylish new leather coverings, better headrests and tray tables and in-seat laptop power outlets."
"We are completely redesigning the international travel experience for our customers—from more comfortable, all-leather seats and cleaner, brighter cabins to unique BusinessElite offerings, including our original, award-winning wine collection, exclusive world-class dining by Chef Michelle Bernstein and industry-leading inflight entertainment with movies, music and more," said Delta vice president of marketing Joanne Smith. "Enhanced BusinessElite is one of the many ways we are providing our premium international business class customers with greater value and choice. As we celebrate the largest international expansion in our history, thee timing could not be better to give our product and our customers an upgrade."
Other amenities in Delta's international BusinessElite class product include an entertainment system that offers more than 20 movies, a variety of television programming, 12 video games and MP3 programming, through which travelers can create playlists from a roster of more than 1,600 songs.
Meanwhile, United Airlines is investing up to $165 million to upgrade international, long-haul first and business class seats. The carrier selected B/E Aerospace Inc. to design and manufacture the new product, which will be rolled out in three phases beginning next year. "Reconfiguration of United's entire international wide-body fleet will span roughly two to three years," the carrier said in a statement.
"This program supports United's strategic business emphasis on international and premium services," said B/E Aerospace chairman and CEO Amin Khoury in a statement. "United flies one of the largest international fleets in the world, and we look forward to playing a key role in bringing new levels of comfort to their premium customers."
Northwest said it became the first U.S. carrier to introduce a lie-flat business class seat and an on-demand inflight entertainment system with its premium offering launched in 2003. A spokesperson said the offering now is available on all 16 of its Boeing 757-400s and all 20 Airbus A330s, representing an investment of $30,000 per seat. "We have 12 more Airbus A330s on order, and all are being delivered with these new comforts," a spokesperson said.