Last week's announcement by American Airlines touting its modernization is typical of the message the airlines send us these days. The announcement was pure hype: a video clip, keyed to the new paint job the line is adopting, had the line's CEO claiming that the new paint job outside the plane reflects the great product American has inside the plane. Sadly, like so much in the airline business, clever hype obscures harsh reality.
I'm not sure why, but airline executives get really excited about their line's paint scheme or, as they call it, "livery," and they make a big deal of any change. They pay big bucks to a "prestige" design company, which delivers a layout that's usually different from the old one—and usually no more compelling. I'm reminded of the case many years ago when Western Airlines hired a famous (and expensive) designer to produce a new paint scheme that, when unveiled, turned out to be a look-alike for the logo Winnebago had used on its RVs for years.
American's new look has three components: a new symbol, vaguely recalling American's longstanding eagle logo; the word "American" in very large letters along the fuselage; and a tail treatment vaguely resembling an American flag. The semi-eagle symbol is consistent with other airlines' recent logos, and the tail treatment seems overly busy compared with competitors. The big-letter name on the fuselage copies a recent trend by many airlines around the world. The trade press greeted the new look mainly by speculating whether it would work for a merged American with US Airways. Talk about a "who cares?" moment.
In my opinion, the new look is decidedly underwhelming and no real improvement over the old one. Clearly, livery is more important to the industry than it is to customers: I defy anyone to show that a new "livery" has even the tiniest influence on the number of folks who buy tickets.
The hype says the new look reflects the new features you'll find inside, and what you find inside is the harsh reality: lavish accommodations in business class and tighter seating in economy.
American's new 777-300s have flat-bed seats in business class, where you actually lie flat, at 180 degrees, not on a slant with your legs tucked under the seat in front. Seats are angled so that everyone has direct access to an aisle. Flat-bed seats are becoming the norm for top-level business class these days, and it's likely that American will refit its 777-200s with the same seats. It will probably not refit its 767s, which it intends to replace with 787s, and seating on the 787 is uncertain. The two Japanese lines that have the most 787s delivered to date do not have flat-bed seats, probably because they use them on low-traffic routes where they expect no competition.
Now comes the harsh part: what American has done with economy class. The new 777-300s have extra-narrow 10-across economy seats, and it's likely that when American refits its 777-200s, those economy seats, currently nine-across, will have extra-tight seating. Sadly, this move follows a trend among other 777 operators. American's token "improvement" in economy is that each seat has a sizable video screen and a power outlet. The power outlet means you can easily plug in your laptop, even though you won't have enough room to use it.
American's new 777-300s have one other interesting feature: SeatGuru shows the extra-cost "main cabin extra" with nine-across seats rather than the 10-across in the main cabin, but at the same knee-crunching 31-inch pitch. Certainly, American's "extra" cabin will be better than its main cabin, but 777s on American's competitors—Delta, United, and many others—have nine-across seating for all economy passengers, with even more legroom in premium economy.
The bottom line for economy passengers: 777 flights on Delta, United, Air Canada, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, JAL, Singapore, and a few others will be much more comfortable than American's 777-300s. Be warned.
Sadly, American's "modernization" reflects a prevalent airline trend: better for business class, worse for economy.
Ed Perkins Seniors on the Go is copyright (c) 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.
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