Ask the pilot

Finally, U.S. airlines are trying to make us more comfortable when we fly -- first class and business, anyway. Can they compete with the world's best?

Published July 21, 2006 12:00PM (EDT)

In 2004, an Ask the Pilot reader poll helped confirm what most people already knew or suspected: that the service standards of U.S. airlines were, if not the worst in the world, then ... I can't find an ending for that sentence. Among the top scorers were the usual foreign suspects -- British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, et al. -- with Singapore Airlines, perennial darling of the awards podium, coming in as the all-out victor. At the other extreme, Northwest Airlines was the not-so-proud recipient of the Golden Pretzel trophy, with U.S. Airways, America West and United bringing up the rear. More than two years after they were published, voters' critiques of the bottom finishers still elicit groans of commiserative agony.

At long last there are signs of change. Despite being pummeled by a moonshot surge in oil prices over the past 12 months -- destined only to worsen in response to the unfolding Middle East apocalypse -- America's battered and berated carriers are stepping forward with a host of proactive ideas.

Let's start with the largest of them all, American Airlines. For its business-class customers, the Dallas-based giant is phasing in lie-flat sleeper seats on its 767s and 777s assigned to international flights. American has also upgraded the forward cabin menus on transcontinental domestic runs.

Not to be outdone, No. 2 United is shelling out $160 million for first- and business-class hardware refurbishments, while reporting high passenger satisfaction levels with its domestic premium service product -- or "PS" as it's nicknamed in-house. PS, first available in select coast-to-coast markets, features 180-degree sleepers and numerous other enhancements. Elsewhere in the system, United has outfitted a portion of its affiliate-owned regional fleet with first class, a brand it titles "Xplus," apparently convinced that passengers want their planes to remind them of energy drinks.

Rounding out the Big Three is Delta. Several improvements are on tap for Delta's signature international product, known as business elite, including new seats, on-demand video and a revised selection of entrees. Even more welcome will be $10 million worth of desperately needed upgrades planned for Delta's massive international gateway at Kennedy International in New York. Delta splits its JFK operations between Terminals 2 and 3, and both buildings are the epitome of airport fixer-uppers. The former is what used to be the Pan Am Worldport. It's a historic, vibrant (code word for sweaty and overcrowded) and intensely dungeonlike place, connected by a glass-walled causeway to Terminal 2, previously described by one acerbic columnist as a "hideous modernist box with all the ambiance of an abattoir." Effective last week, business elite check-in at JFK is now consolidated at Terminal 2, an extremely smart move that will please the airline's most valued patrons while helping to disperse the enormous crowds that typically gather in Terminal 3 during the late-day overseas departure push. Over the past year or so Delta has added almost 50 daily departures from JFK, and pending nonstops to India and Ghana promised up to 550 more people being dumped into already unbearable queues. In another intelligent, crowd-thinning move, Delta will install automated check-in kiosks with passport-scanning technology. (Note to the airline: During renovations, please don't dislodge those resident pigeons and sparrows that live in the terminals' rafters. Maybe their being there is less than sanitary, but watching the birds forage for crumbs is considerably more relaxing and entertaining than having to hear those blasted CNN monitors.)

Next, to Minneapolis: Seems like only yesterday that Northwest was being skewered far and wide over its decision to charge passengers 15 bucks for the privilege of sitting in an aisle seat or in an exit row. Well, it's still being skewered, but earlier this month Northwest unveiled an enhanced meal service on domestic flights, giving first-class customers a choice -- a choice! -- of entrees from an improved menu. Admittedly that's not much, but this is an airline that went so far as to pull the plug on pretzels and peanuts. The old fish-or-chicken option had begun to seem very, very quaint. Meanwhile, changes to what Northwest calls "world business class," include lie-flat sleepers and new entertainment units installed on 747s and Airbus A330s used internationally.

Northwest's investments, as with Delta's, are made possible through the kind allowance of a bankruptcy judge.

If you haven't noticed, the bulk of the above changes will affect only those travelers fortunate enough to be riding in first or biz class -- less than 20 percent of everybody who flies. This might seem discriminatory, and one is free to argue that sprucing up the forward rows while ignoring the rear is yet another symptom of America's widening gap between rich and poor, privileged and underclass. Maybe it is, but from the airlines' point of view, those forward rows are the ones with the fattest margins and the highest revenue potential -- provided the person sitting there is able to justify paying a premium. That's hardly an easy call anymore, now that the distinctions between first class and economy -- domestically, anyway -- are often little more than academic. Long-distance flights are one thing, but on a two-, three- or four-hour hop, there's little incentive to spend extra for what amounts to a slightly bigger seat and some predeparture orange juice from a plastic cup. Many of the comments left by disgruntled fliers on the SkyTrax review forum echo this. SkyTrax is a prestigious air travel advisory group, and its feedback pages are a popular place to kvetch:

"I would advise anyone wanting to travel with United Airlines not to bother paying the premium to travel in First."

"The 3.5 hour flight in first class provided no food service at all ... On the way back, we purchased boxed lunches to take on-board. It seemed rather silly boarding the first class cabin with boxed lunches."

For airlines to reap profit from these seats, they need to be better seats. On longer hauls, lie-flat sleepers and cutting-edge personal video have been common aboard the better European and Asian airlines for some time, and only now are we getting in step. Have we waited too long?

"The Americans are coming to the table very late," says Peter Miller, marketing director for SkyTrax. "Many high-revenue passengers have already lost confidence. Poor revenues in the forward cabins are wholly attributable to the very poor product [the U.S. airlines] currently provide."

That poor product has induced more than a few well-heeled fliers to shun the commercial airlines altogether, going instead with private jets. Fractional ownerships and pay-as-you-go programs, like those offered by NetJets, Sentient Jet and many others, have taken in a share of airline refugees. There are no hard-and-fast numbers revealing how many people have gone this route, but the airline spokespeople I talked to seem to believe it's well under 1 percent. Steve Hankin, CEO of Sentient Jet, describes it as "a sizable and growing sector." For the most part, airline executives don't foresee a mass migration to private flying -- but then, for years they weren't worried about Southwest either.

And once those customers are gone, they might not come back. "I don't see any reverse migration even if, theoretically, the airlines were to get their act together," says Hankin. "Ours is such a better product, at a more than competitive price. People have become comfortable with programs like ours, and are saying to themselves, This is the way we're going to fly."

Even as our carriers scramble, they're still a long way from the in-flight Wi-Fi, oversize duvets and changing rooms found aboard some. Singapore's first-class, two-hour dinner "presentation" requires its own multiday training syllabus for flight attendants. Such over-the-top in-flight theater, however, isn't necessarily what we ought to be striving for. "Engaging a small handful of elite carriers in an arms race just isn't a viable option," voices Ron Cole, vice president of in-flight service at U.S. Airways. Cole believes, and others in his position agree, there is only so much comfort the average American flier is willing to pay for. Hoping to emulate the Singapores and Emirates of the world is liable to prove at best quixotic, and at worst disastrous for the bottom line.

"That we've garnered more accolades than anybody else is definitely a double-edged sword," says James Boyd, spokesman for Singapore Airlines. "It's an honor to be so highly respected, but in return we're held to a much higher standard. We need to work much harder, and are taken to task should we slip up."

That level of effort, and risk, is almost certainly beyond our capabilities. What we should be doing is, in fact, what we are doing: aiming to reenergize the air travel experience through a modicum of amenities and comforts available at reasonable, sustainable ticket prices.

But what about in coach? Nickel-per-mile fares notwithstanding, there's no excuse for the dirty cabins and shoddy service suffered over the past half-decade, up to and including, in certain cases, the removal of pillows and near total elimination of catering. Don't look now, but even in steerage there's a flicker of hope.

On Delta's international segments, printed menus, personal amenities kits and, as if it were 1985 all over again, a free cocktail are being debuted in economy class. Not sure I'd wanna order something called a "Mile High Mojito" in a plane full of people, but kudos to Delta for attempting to keep pace with the rest of the planet's long-haulers. Domestically, the live seat-back TV formerly offered on subsidiary Song will be redeployed on the mainline Delta fleet.

Continental still provides hot meals in economy, on international and intra-U.S. routes, and proudly boasts that pillows and blankets shall remain on board for anyone who wants them. Continental is living proof that the worst of the worst is capable of turnaround. Arguably the most resilient and successful of the embattled majors, this is a former industry disgrace that twice slogged through bankruptcy.

And no discussion about economy class is complete without a mention of Southwest. The irreverent Texans -- theirs is now the world's second largest airline in passengers carried -- are toying with the notion of, get this, assigned seating. On July 10 Southwest began testing the idea on flights out of San Diego. The carrier has been reluctant to try a formalized seating process, worried that it will increase boarding and deplaning times, eating into the famous half-hour turnarounds that are part and parcel of Southwest's success. Methinks that a company with Southwest's legacy of ingenuity and resourcefulness will figure out a way to make it work. Until then, if you're one of those Southwest traditionalists who love the brutish, uncivilized fun of scrumming to grab a cushion, not to worry, the first-come, first-served system will remain in place at least through 2007.

So things are getting better, albeit slightly, on the aft side of the curtain as well. Here too, however, we're still nowhere close to that pantheon of elites. Maybe it's no coincidence that the carriers offering the most lauded first and business classes also offer a superior economy class. Singapore's long-haul economy has, along with several other helpful accouterments, buffet bars and wide-screen personal video with a choice of 500 programming options. The closest we come to that level of in-flight entertainment might just be those seat-back TVs at Delta. (JetBlue, of course, has them too.) Call me cynical, but while Singapore's riders can pick among hundreds of movies and songs, we Americans, par for the course, can watch television.

But I suppose television is better than nothing. These are baby steps we're taking, but steps nonetheless.

A few names are missing from the above summary of Big Announcements, as doubtless some of you caught. I'm uncertain, for example, what U.S. Airways is up to, and Mr. Cole was fairly mum on the topic. Presumably everybody is busy dealing with the rigors of merger, as the aircraft and employees of America West -- those who haven't been laid off -- are assimilated into the U.S. Airways network. Seeing how both of those carriers were runners-up to Northwest for Golden Pretzel dishonors in '04, I am prompted to wonder: If the government holds the right to decline airline mergers based on unfair competitive advantage, should it not do the same in the spirit of disadvantage? Then again, maybe all that bad karma coming together, like two head-to-head magnets, can flip the whole thing on its head.

Next week: Culture and consequence

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By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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