July 12, 2001 -- It is almost 18 months since American Airlines began ripping coach seats out of every plane in its fleet to add as much as five inches of legroom for every coach passenger it flies. And fly American I have--24 coach segments in the last four months--to decide whether a few more inches of seat pitch translates into any significant improvement in our lives on the road.
Twenty-four flights later, I can say this: If you fly coach, you've got to be nuts not to be flying with American. This is gigantic progress measured in inches.
Except for the prosaic name--American calls the program More Room Throughout Coach--there is absolutely nothing to criticize and nothing to nit pick. There are no complicated calculations to work through or judgments to shade. This is as simple a proposition as you're gonna get in the otherwise grim landscape of 21st Century business travel: Fly American in coach and you'll get substantially more seat room than you'll get in any other U.S. carrier's coach cabin.
That's all there is to it. Fly American anywhere in coach and get three or four or five inches more to move around. Three or four or five more inches to cross your legs. Three or four or five more inches to open your laptop or spread out your paperwork. Three or four or five more inches to restore some semblance of comfort and personal space--and, yes, even dignity--to flying in the back of the bus.
Remember comfort in coach? Remember personal space? My god, remember dignity? That's what American is serving up now. Three or four or five more inches of space and a dollop of dignity.
If you've flown American since they've reconfigured--the entire domestic fleet is done and most international aircraft have been overhauled--then you know what I mean. If you haven't, it's hard to explain exactly what you're missing. It's not just the extra room. It's what the additional space contributes to the entire atmosphere of an average coach flight on American.
With more room to spread out, passengers are comfortable (Imagine that!) and, miraculously, comparatively content. Flights are quieter. Passengers and flight attendants seem more polite to each other. There's no in-flight jostling, no manic fidgeting, no yelling, no cross looks, no mumbled curses, no exasperated sighs. Passengers work or read or sleep in relative tranquility. Even in a middle seat, there is a reasonable sense of personal space.
I'm not suggesting American's coach cabins are as good as first class. Of course, they're not. But with those three or four or five inches of additional legroom in coach, you don't feel as if you've been herded into a cattle car. You don't feel as if you're a helpless victim of a crime against humanity. And unlike United's Economy Plus section, which is open only to full-fare flyers and elite frequent-flyer members, American's more spacious coach configuration is available to all comers in every seat for the price of any coach ticket.
Along among the major carriers, American's entire coach cabin is livable now and you can fly it without fear of bodily harm or mental anguish.
The physics behind this metaphysical transformation isn't complicated. By removing about 7,200 seats across the fleet, American wasn't just increasing seat pitch from an average of about 31 inches to a new standard of 34 or more inches. Removing seats also means fewer passengers, thus reducing the in-flight frenzy. Most of the seats have been outfitted with six-way-adjustable, leather-trimmed headrests, a feature that frequent flyers adore. American also enlarged many of its overhead bins. The extra overhead space--and the fact that passengers, knowing they have extra legroom, are less reluctant to place bags under the seat in front of them--also means less carry-on consternation and aisle-clogging luggage jockeying. Laptop power ports liberally scattered throughout the reconfigured coach cabins encourage frequent flyers to focus on work instead of noticing every little in-flight imperfection. And a new boarding process introduced last month--American now loads flights by pre-assigned group numbers, not by row numbers--seems to be eliminating much of the herding and queuing at the departure gate.
There's another physical attribute that contributes to the overall sense of well being in coach on American: The airline's traffic has been disappearing lately. Its system-wide load factor (the percentage of available seats filled per flight) plummeted about 5 percent in May and about 4 percent in June compared to the similar periods in 2000. And when you consider it eliminated about 6 percent of its seat capacity to achieve the roomier configuration, American is now flying about 10 percent fewer passengers on every plane it operates.
And while that double-digit drop is naturally conducive to a more comfortable flight, the decline is alarming for more than a few reasons. American, after all, didn't create more leg room strictly as an altruistic by-product of its oft-stated desire to project the image of a higher-quality airline. The goal of the More Room Throughout Coach gambit was to convince passengers--especially business travelers who tend to buy higher-priced coach tickets--to switch to American. So far, almost 18 months into the process, there is precious little evidence that American's gamble is paying off. While the entire airline industry has hit the metaphorical financial wall, American's recent traffic and profit performance is actually worse than some of its less comfortable competitors.
And that leads me to wonder what you're thinking. How is it that you're not supporting American by diverting at least some of your flying to the one major carrier that has actually acted on our oft-stated demand for a more comfortable, dignified ride in the back of the bus? We've been bitching for years about cheek-by-jowl coach seating. Yet now that one airline has actually given us what we want, our response has been a collective shrug of the shoulders.
In the name of us all, I often use this space to challenge airlines to put up or shut up. Alone among the major carriers, American has put up. The better mousetrap is out there now, fellow flyers. A gigantic improvement in our lives on the road can now be measured in inches. If we don't beat a path to American's boarding gates, then shame on us.This column originally appeared at biztravel.com.