Ask the pilot

What do U.S. carriers need to do to regain their status as world-class players? Wi-Fi would help.

Published August 15, 2008 10:21AM (EDT)

I don't like hype. I especially don't like hype when it involves big, ugly, overrated airplanes that have, by this point, garnered more than their fair allotment of attention. You know the plane I'm talking about.

The puffery got going in the spring of 2005, when the Airbus A380 took to the air for its maiden test flight. "The most anticipated flight since Concorde leapt from the pavement in 1969," cried one news report. "Straight into the history books," said another of the "gargantuan double-decked superjumbo." Oh the humanity. Over on the Airbus Web site they were channeling Neil Armstrong, inviting visitors to listen to the "first words of chief test pilot Jacques Rosay."

Less than a year ago, months behind schedule, the beast entered into scheduled service. Launch customer Singapore Airlines took full advantage of the world's attention, giddily showing off the double-bed suites and other hedonistic savories found on board the bloated double-decker.

Now, over the past couple of weeks, it has been Emirates' turn. The Dubai-based giant's order book calls for more than 40 A380s (rumors say up to a hundred!), and the airline will shortly begin flying them to New York's JFK. As a series of splashy media stories have pointed out, passengers will enjoy comforts and amenities no less impressive than those on Singapore, from fully enclosed suites to on-board showers.

As regulars to this column know, I resent the A380's aviation-historical pretensions, most of which pertain to its size. The plane is enormous, yes -- the first commercial passenger jet with a max takeoff weight exceeding a million pounds -- and it's certainly a milestone if for no other reason than somebody has finally come up with a jetliner bigger than the 747. But revolutionary it is not. When the 747 debuted in 1970, it was more than double the size of any existing competitor, and its economies of scale changed air travel forever. The Airbus is only about 30 percent larger than a 747 overall, and in some configurations will carry fewer passengers.

Then we have the jet's glaring physical shortcomings. There's no polite way of saying it -- and, I know, I've said it numerous times in this space -- the A380 is hideous. The 747 is one of the most elegant icons of industrial design, dignified in the fashion of a grand ocean liner. The A380 is big for the sake of big, a steroidal beluga with a malformed forehead. Is it not ironic, in a way, that it's the Europeans who have rendered something so aesthetically obnoxious. Every time I see it, I have to wonder, What were they thinking? This from the people who gave us the Concorde?

But now comes the latest media buzz, which is irritating for a slightly different reason. The focus is on the premium cabin luxuries offered by two of the world's most prestigious airlines, Singapore and Emirates. Truth is, the perks found on these airlines' A380s aren't appreciably different from those on their other planes. Have a gander at first class on an Emirates 777. Or try this A340. (I once described the latter photo as "an overwrought cross between a Catholic confessional and a Vegas hotel room," but when it's 14 hours to Dubai, who could say no?)

While the chance to shower aloft is a welcome novelty on a 14-hour journey, Emirates' on-board service is excellent all around, regardless of aircraft type, and regardless of where you're sitting. (My own experience in Emirates economy class was detailed here.) Ditto at Singapore Airlines, whose product, front to back, is beyond most U.S. airlines' wildest ambitions. Singapore's flight attendant training course lasts longer than most carriers' pilot training. (Compliments to Joe Sharkey of the New York Times, whose spotlight on Emirates' A380s took time to note that many of the plane's nicest appointments, showers notwithstanding, are already well known to the airlines' regular fliers.)

But never mind Singapore and Emirates. The fact that virtually all overseas carriers, from Air Canada to Ethiopian Airlines, outclass their U.S. counterparts is something many Americans still fail to grasp. (This 3-year-old photo was snapped on board a Virgin Atlantic 747.) That, maybe, is one reason these A380 puff pieces have so much traction. Full-flat sleeper cubicles in business class? Wide-screen personal video in coach? A gleaming airport (Singapore's Changi) with a complimentary movie theater and swimming pool? It all seems so decadent, so unlikely, so ... foreign.

I really don't know if it's possible for America's carriers to ever regain their pre-deregulation status as genuine world-class players. That being said, I believe that two recent announcements, both by Delta Air Lines, rank as perhaps the most impressive efforts by any U.S. contender in recent memory. Poised to become the world's largest airline with its acquisition of Northwest, Delta seems to believe that size alone won't bring success, and is hoping to raise the bar with a pair of attention-getting innovations.

The first, discussed here back in April, is Delta's planned installation of the so-called Cozy Suite economy-class seat. No word on how the proposed merger might affect things, but installation is set to begin in 2010, covering Delta's entire long-haul fleet of Boeing 767s and 777s. Cozy Suite provides each passenger with a partial-shell enclosure, described by the manufacturer as a "fixed cocoon." In addition to greater comfort and privacy, the sleek-looking seats use a patented recline mechanism that adjusts forward and downward, meaning the seat back itself does not tip into the next passenger's space. There's a footrest, a lumbar cushion and optional wide-screen video. Average legroom is increased by a minimum of 2 inches, and alignment is staggered horizontally, allowing easy access to the aisle even from a window seat. When you consider the bone-bending hell that is the typical economy-class chair, this will be no small improvement for millions of annual travelers.

Second, of course, is this month's announcement that in-flight Wi-Fi will soon be available on all of Delta's domestic routes. The broadband service will be available at a reasonable per-segment fee ($9.95 or $12.95, depending on length of flight), and, if I'm guessing right, should prove to be very popular. Keeping passengers satisfied is all about perfecting the art of distraction, and I cannot think of a better way of passing the time than the chance to surf the Web or answer e-mail during flight. (Column idea: Q&A chat with yours truly, live from 35,000 feet.)

Delta is not the first airline to feature Wi-Fi, but it's the first to promise fleetwide installation, scheduled for completion by next summer. Or, well, almost fleetwide. Although Delta is rapidly becoming the country's premier international airline -- the closest thing we've had to a truly global carrier since the heyday of Pan Am -- Wi-Fi will, for now, be available only on the domestic fleet (about 330 of Delta's 450 or so aircraft).

Unfortunately, Wi-Fi over the ocean is a considerably more elaborate affair than Wi-Fi over Kansas. Delta's system, provided through a company called Aircell (under the Aircell brand Gogo), involves a series of ground-based towers similar to those used by cellphones. Long-haul broadband, by comparison, requires extremely expensive satellite links. Until more airlines are willing to join in and help spread the cost, it will remain out of reach. (Lufthansa, some might remember, offered long-haul Wi-Fi for a time, until the supplier, Connexion by Boeing, shut the operation after suffering heavy losses.)

Delta says it is studying the feasibility of long-haul Wi-Fi, along with other possible enhancements. If, for the foreseeable future, Wi-Fi is out of the picture, the next best thing would be increased installation of on-demand, seat-back video. The airline is up against some tough competitors on international routes, many of which operate newer and bigger aircraft with cutting-edge entertainment options. Delta's mainstay international aircraft is the 767-300, which, for now, has personal video only in business class. Cape Town, South Africa, to New York is a long, long, long way to fly with only an old-style, bulkhead movie screen.

Quite frankly, all U.S. airlines, particularly if they wish to be taken seriously in overseas markets, ought to be looking hard at Cozy Suite (or something else like it), Wi-Fi and on-demand entertainment. To this point they've been tripping over one another enacting various fees and surcharges for basic services that used to be complimentary. People feel nickel-and-dimed, and anti-airline resentment continues to grow. Ten bucks for in-flight Internet, on the other hand, is a fee that fliers might actually find fair, and would gratefully part with.


Re: TSA madness

"As an aviation industry consultant, I interface regularly with government officials, including TSA and Homeland Security. I'm continually amazed at how adversarially the TSA's mid- and senior-level officials view the public and airline industry. If they were left to their own devices, they would avoid all contact with the public and the press, and just impose rules by fiat. In nearly any kind of forum, they seem to resent any pushback, and are relieved when reporters leave them alone. I think the tone is set by TSA leadership. If the bureaucrats who run TSA fundamentally disrespect the traveling public and the aviation industry, it's only natural that privates and sergeants at the gates will follow suit."

Name withheld

Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Contact Patrick Smith through his Web site and look for answers in a future column.

By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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