Sunday, January 21, 2001

Room To Move

If there was a recurring story this holiday season, it was the crunch at the airports. Air travel was at an all time high, with some 15 million-plus of us soaring off to grandma's house. And yet the experience has become less concerned with taking wing and more concerned with taking time. Between weather problems, labor disputes and an overloaded air traffic system, it's getting so that while your actual air speed might be expressed in hundreds of miles-per-hour, the entire trip, when calculated door-to-door, is being challenged by the best times of the pony express.

And yet we keep coming. That's because more and more, air travel is seen as a God-given right of the masses, right up there with fast food, internet access and Starbucks coffee. And while we may shop for the best price, we'll be dammed if we're willing to go without. Drive? Take the bus? Try the train? If you can fly, you must be joking.

But in spite of the demand, airlines know that their seats have become a commodity to be sold at the lowest price. Brand loyalty is defined only by which frequent flyer program you prefer. And so the guys who own the planes have to do something to attract the traveler who has a choice, or better yet, has a few extra dollars in their pocket or their company's pocket to spend on the getting there. Food is one thing, entertainment systems another. But any person who has flown from Atlanta to Boise by way of Chicago, or from New York to Rome by way of London will tell you that the holy grail of air travel isn't hot towels or your own can of soda or complimentary limo service or readable magazines. Rather, it's space.

Given that every extra inch on an airplane means more fuel and maintenance costs, it's not surprising that the airlines try and cram as many seats as possible onto the plane. But popular belly aching being a powerful driver... or perhaps corporate execs getting stuck back in economy on a jaunt from Dallas to Seattle... we're starting to see some expansion taking place. For unlike real estate, which they're not making any more of, one can jigger the square inches aloft to give each a person a bit more room.

American Airlines is offering a few inches of extra legroom, and has based a major ad campaign around it. Some airlines are offering a new class of service, called premium or preferred, with some extra elbow, leg and hip room which lands somewhere between stowage and business. But the greatest land grab has got to be British Airways, and its boast of a bed for every business class traveler.

These marvels of modern engineering are little cubicle-ets, complete with video screens, phones, drink holders, storage compartments, power outlets and privacy screens. But all of that pales next to the seat, which, at the touch of a button, converts from an upright desk chair to a perfectly flat bed, albeit it one exactly six feet long and shoulder wide... sort of an airborne coffin. Of course, compared to attempting to doze in a semi upright, modestly padded coach seat while the guy in front of reclines into your lap, its actually heaven at 35,000 feet.

The seats have proven wildly popular with business travelers, so much so that BA is adding more and more of them to their aircraft. On a recent Atlantic crossing, this writer counted at least 30 rows of sleepers on the main deck, as compared to only 25 rows of coach. At the height of the sack-out, a stroller up and down the aisles could be forgiven for thinking the view looked as much like an adult nursery as a 747.

Everybody makes out...everybody, that is, except the economy traveler. A little math drives this home. One sleeper seat takes up about 3 rows worth of economy, and runs 8 wide as opposed to 9. But the sleepers go for about two grand a pop, while an economy seat can be had for $500, often less when a sale is in progress. That means that the same flying real estate generates about $16,000 in business class, about $13,500 in coach. It doesn't take a biologist to figure out which types of seats will proliferate, and which will become endangered.

And BA's approach isn't the last word. Sir Richard Bramson is promising double beds on Virgin Airlines in the near future. And Airbus Industries has in the works the A380, its new triple-decker jumbo aircraft. These airborne behemoths would be capable of holding up to 656 passengers in their best cattle car configuration. Even at that, its main deck is 43% wider than the largest craft now flying, yet packing just 35% more seats. That means that even the folks in the back of the plane would each have their own armrest.

But the real money is expected to come when they put in fewer seats, and use the lower deck to install amenities to attract the business customer. These include not only sleeper seats, but sleeper cabins, business centers, health clubs, duty free shops, bars and casinos. Can a McDonald's be far behind?

Analysts are predicting that traffic in the skies will double in 15 years and triple in 20. That's a lot of frequent flyer miles, and will require some 14,700 new planes, 1500 of them in the "very large" category. It also works out to nearly 13 billion dollars in business. The folks fielding the planes know they have a captive audience, but a picky one as well. Let's hope that, for the sake of a few bucks, they resist turning us all into sardines.


Marc Wollin of Bedford tries to always sit in the exit row in coach. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

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