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 The Brancatelli File

joe SEEN IN 'C.'
SORT OF. EVENTUALLY.


BY JOE BRANCATELLI

November 30, 2006 -- You want some good news about life on the road? Well, here it is: International business class is growing. The perks are getting better. The seats are becoming beds. And the beds are getting bigger.

But the devil is in the details and when we're talking about life on the road, the devil is ever-present. So for all of the legitimate good news we can find in C, we're gonna have to look for it--and, in some cases, wait for it, too. And, of course, be prepared to pay for it.

Let's leave aside price for the moment--Why ruin a perfectly good column with tales of $9,000 tabs?--and focus on the other negatives that are developing as more carriers announce new business-class cabins.
       1) The installation time lines are fantastically long. Airlines are announcing new seats and perks with bold headlines and snappy graphics, but burying the fact that it may take years for the product to be installed in tiny type. Much of what you'll read below won't be on planes until late in 2008 or, in one notable case, 2010.
       2) Consistency across an airline's fleet is out. The carriers don't even pay lip service to the concept of offering you the same business-class experience on every plane or every route anymore. A lot of what you'll read below will be installed only on some planes on some routes on a particular carrier and that means you're going to have to search hard for the best seat that the airline offers.

That said, let's take an alphabetical look at what's been seen in C these days. Or, more accurately, what's been announced for C

AER LINGUS The Irish flag carrier has seven planes to service its long-haul routes--New York, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and Dubai, so the addition of two new Airbus A330s next year represents a comparatively hefty 19 percent increase in seat capacity. The new planes will be equipped with 24 lie-flat seat beds configured 2x2x2. There will be 57 inches of legroom when used as chairs. When converted to beds, the armrests will recline to allow two more inches of space to augment the 20-inch-wide cushions. The at-seat entertainment system will feature 10.6-inch screens with on-demand programming. The new planes will appear next May and June and will be placed on some flights from Los Angeles and Dubai. The business-class cabins on the existing planes have traditional armchairs. They are being refreshed and flyers will be able to use hand-held personal-media players with 10.6-inch screens. Both the new and old seats will have power points that use standard electrical outlets.

AIR FRANCE Air France announced a new business class for its Boeing 777s this month. It even claims that the first of these planes has been outfitted. But in typical French fashion, Air France is almost comically closed-mouthed about the details. We know that the new seats are configured 2x3x2, which means a middle seat that few business-class passengers are thrilled to occupy. We also know that the new seat folds out to a bed that is 78 inches long and reclines to 175 degrees. The bed is 24 inches wide, but Air France won't say whether that includes the space created by the retractable armrests. Air France also claims the seats have wider folding tables and a "step" to access overhead storage. Lots of luck getting the specifics. Where will the new cabin fly? Air France says that it has "not been determined."

AMERICAN AIRLINES The major features of American's new business class are two tray tables that can be used separately or locked together and an in-flight entertainment system that does double duty: It operates both as a hand-held portable video player or can be placed into a seatback for use as a stationary system. Another tweak: The seat moves forward up to ten inches, which theoretically offers more privacy by moving you out of the line of sight of your seatmate. The seats offer 59 inches of legroom and then fold out to 77-inch-long beds. The bed cushion is 20 inches wide and three more inches are added when the outer armrest is retracted. The seat configuration is 2x2x2 in Boeing 767-300s and 2x3x2 in Boeing 777s. An AC power plug is placed high on the seatback in front of you. But this new business class will only be installed on American's B767s and B777s. The installation won't be complete on all of those planes until at least the end of next year.

BRITISH AIRWAYS British Airways beat the rest of the airline world to market in 2000 with business-class beds. The carrier's next-generation product offers a new bed that is 25 inches wide and 78 inches long. There is a 10-inch at-seat monitor and an on-demand video system with 100 films and television programs. The at-seat power port will now accept a standard AC plug and a clever laptop drawer at the base of each seat permits travelers to stow computers, shoes or other items. BA's unique seat alignment--window seats face backward, aisle seats face forward--has been retained, but a new, electronically operated opaque plastic dividing wall replaces the old fabric privacy fan. The first of BA's long-haul Boeing 747s and Boeing 777s has already been equipped with the new cabin and the airline promises the systemwide rollout will be complete in 18 months. That's a brisk schedule, since it took BA almost six years to finish the initial business-class bed installation. The airline's Boeing 767s, which were the last to get the original beds, won't be upgraded.

DELTA AIR LINES Delta has ripped its route network and fleet apart to remake itself as an international airline and now it's begun a stop-gap effort to spruce up its aging, and never particularly good, business-class cabins. Some new planes--with 60 inches of legroom and greater recline on its chairs, upgraded seat coverings and tray tables and improved food and entertainment offerings--are already flying. Most of the rest of the international fleet should be ready by next summer. The airline promises lie-flat, fully horizontal beds in business class--but not until the year 2010.

ETIHAD The Abu Dhabi-based carrier launched its first U.S. route last month and the business-class cabin on its Airbus A340-500s flying from New York/Kennedy was an eye-opener. The 28 seats are configured 1x2x1 and each converts to a 73-inch, fully flat bed. There's a 15-inch personal video monitor and 200 hours of on-demand programming at each seat. The at-seat power supply is supplemented by a pair of USB ports, an RCA jack and an RJ-45 (Ethernet) jack. The chairs have built-in massage functions, too.

LAN The fast-growing carrier based in Chile flies a large number of U.S. routes to Central and South America and it has been installing a new business class cabin on its Boeing 767-300s. The seats offer 74 inches of legroom and fold out to a fully flat, horizontal bed. The seats, configured 2x2x2, also have retractable armrests. The business-class seats have 15.4-inch video monitors with on-demand movies, shorts, games and CDs.

SINGAPORE AIRLINES Singapore Air this week rolled out a C cabin for its new Boeing 777-300ERs and the details are enticing: The seats are 30 inches wide--that's about 50 percent wider than most of the seats you'll find in business classes--and they fold into beds that are 76 inches long. The bed is 25 inches wide at the shoulder and 36 inches at the hip. Every seat has an AC power supply and USB port. The on-demand entertainment system features 15.4-inch screens and a mind-boggling 1,000 movies, television shows, CDs and games. There are even word-processing and spreadsheet applications available. The cabin features a 1x2x1 seat layout. Although the first planes with the new business class will fly next week, there will only be a handful of B777-300s in service by the middle of next year. Singapore does promise to put the 777s on flights from San Francisco beginning in January.

Copyright 1993-2006 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.