February 10, 2000 -- Let's give credit where credit is due: Some airlines are finally getting smart enough to go back to the future in the back of the bus and that is extraordinarily good news for anyone who flies coach.
The decisions last week of American Airlines to add as much as five inches of leg room at its coach-class seats and of British Airways to create a fourth cabin for travelers who pay full-fare coach is being analyzed, deconstructed, debated and quantified from a zillion angles.
But the bottom line is simple enough for all to see and feel: This is good, this is right, this is the minimum level of comfort we deserve.
But make no mistake about it: These decisions do little more than turn back the clock to the days just before deregulation, to those days of yore when business travel was relatively civil and, comparatively speaking, I had hair. American's new seat pitch is no more than every traveler received in coach in 1980. British Airways' fourth cabin is no more than a return to the original intention of business class, which was created to differentiate between full-fare coach flyers and "backpackers" getting huge discounts.
As I say, it is good that some airlines have chosen to go back to the future in the back of the bus. It's too damned bad that it has taken two decades, all my hair and a revolution by the huddled masses of disaffected frequent flyers. And it scares the hell out of me that more than a week has already gone by and not one of American's and BA's competitors has rushed to match the initiatives of two of the world's most important and most influential carriers.
But before I worry about that stuff, let's revel for the moment in our good fortune.
BA'S WORLD TRAVELLER PLUS
On January 31, British Airways took the wraps off about $1 billion worth of product innovations. Besides introducing innovative new flat-bed seating for its long-haul business class, BA created World Traveller Plus, a separate cabin aimed at flyers who pay full coach on long-haul international flights. The new cabin will offer seats with 38 inches of leg room (coach seats offer 31 inches) configured 2x4x2. Each seat will also be equipped with adjustable headrests and foot rests, a telephone, a power point for laptop computers and a personal video monitor.
BA's innovation in not totally new, of course. Virgin Atlantic has operated a fine full-fare cabin since 1992. Several smaller Asian airlines offer full-coach sections on selected transpacific flights, too. And BA itself experimented in the late 1980s with separate seating for full-coach passengers.
What sets World Traveller Plus apart is BA's sheer size. Attention must be paid when an international behemoth like BA equips its transatlantic and transpacific fleets with a separate cabin for full-fare flyers. In a perfect world, other international airlines will be forced to match BA's move. And the logic of a separate cabin for full-fare flyers is undeniable. With advance-purchase transatlantic coach tickets selling as low as $99 one way, business travelers paying $1,300 or more for last-minute coach travel deserve more.
AMERICAN'S 'ROOMY' COACH
Four days after BA launched World Traveller Plus, American Airlines unveiled its own coach initiative. Under the painfully prosaic rubric of More Room Throughout Coach, American announced it would spend $70 million to rip 7,200 seats from the coach cabins of its more than 700 jets. The result: American's 75,000 remaining coach seats will each offer from 34 to 36 inches of leg room, up from the industry's current sub-human standard of 31 inches or less.
Like the BA move, American's seat reconfiguration isn't original. TWA tried removing coach seats in 1993. American itself tested an Executive Coach program in 1997. Last August, United created Economy Plus, several far-forward rows of coach that offer extra leg room to full-fare travelers and preferred frequent-flyer plan members. And don't forget that all-coach Midwest Express flies its leather seats in a 2x2 configuration. What's new here is that American is choosing to reconfigure coach for all travelers, regardless of the fare paid, and, unlike TWA and Midwest Express, may have the market clout to force other airlines to match.
Taken together, the American and BA moves bring us back to about 1980, when every traveler received a decent seat in coach and full-fare international flyers got better treatment than leisure travelers. I don't know about you, but I'm perfectly willing to turn the clock back. I'm willing to divert my business to airlines prepared to give me a 1980 experience in coach.
Of course, I'm also waiting to be paged to the white courtesy phone so I can be reunited with my hair. I lost it surviving these last 20 years of frequent flying and I'd like the airlines to replace that, too.This column originally appeared at biztravel.com.