New Seats May Give American a Leg up

Business-class passengers on American Airlines are about to get some more wiggle room.

Today, the carrier is set to unveil its plush business-class seats, the centerpiece of a new cabin design for its Boeing 767 aircraft.

The new cabins feature adjustable extra-large seats that can lie nearly flat, along with plenty of bells and whistles.

It's an upgrade that even American officials say is long overdue and a key way that the Fort Worth-based airline will retain elite customers and attract new ones.

"We recognize that we're a bit behind," said David Cush, American's senior vice president of global sales. "We believe this seat will allow us to leapfrog ahead of the other guys."

Business-class cabins are a key battleground for U.S. network airlines, which are shifting more capacity to long-haul international flights in an effort to regain profitability.

"It's the most profitable cabin we have, and it's the anchor to a lot of our corporate business," Mr. Cush said. "Putting in these improvements helps us to keep on top of the corporate mountain."

British Airways introduced lie-flat seats in business class in 2000, setting a standard for the industry. During the last several years, many of American's competitors have also upgraded their offerings to include a seat that reclines to a nearly flat position.

"The stakes have become high," said Randy Petersen, an expert on frequent fliers. "Business class today is better than first class was five or seven years ago."

Rivals' plans

It's difficult to forecast how far the one-upmanship will go. United Airlines, which upgraded transcontinental flights for its premium service "p.s." in 2004, is set to unveil a $165 million upgrade plan for its international routes this year.

British Airways is also gearing up to revamp its already industry-leading business-class cabin this year, to the tune of about $184 million.

"Our product beats the pants off everyone right now, but competitors are catching up, so we have to leapfrog over them," said John Lampl, a British Airways spokesman. "This is what the business traveler expects."

When it comes to long-haul travel, amenities like chef-designed meals and carefully researched wines are nice, but "it's hard to differentiate yourself with better wine or food," said aviation consultant Alan Sbarra. "The bar keeps getting raised, and the lie-flat seat is the key."

Time for bed

Business-class cabins have gotten more attention from corporate travelers, who are cutting their trips shorter to reduce expenses. The tighter itineraries rarely include extra time to recover from jet lag.

"If you're a business traveler, you're expected to be ready for a full day of business on the day you arrive," Mr. Cush said.

American's upgrades can't come soon enough for Flower Mound resident Cal Lacasse, who logs at least 50,000 miles on American or its partners each year. But when it comes to short business trips to Europe, Mr. Lacasse is willing to forgo mileage bonuses on American and pay more to fly Lufthansa or British Airways.

"American has the worst seats in the industry," Mr. Lacasse said. "I'd have to fly a day early or I'd be exhausted."

American has been studying upgrades to its business-class cabin since 2000. The project was shelved in 2001 after the industry's steep downturn, due in part to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Work on the project didn't resume for two years, once American was past its brush with bankruptcy.

The seats, made by Recaro Aircraft Seating Inc. in Fort Worth, were approved in 2004.

Installation of American's new seats is scheduled to begin in September and finish by March. The cabins also are being upgraded to have a wavelike shape; recessed bins offer a more spacious feel.

Similar upgrades for American's Boeing 777 fleet are expected to begin early next year.

American declined to disclose the price tag for its upgrade, except to say that a pair of the seats for its Boeing 767 cost about $50,000.

Unlike seats used by British Airways' version, American's new seats don't lie completely flat, sloping at a 171-degree angle.

Jim Hadden, who oversees American's cabin design, said testing showed "90 percent of people don't lie flat on their back when they sleep."

The seats could be programmed to recline to 180 degrees, but the extra space would mean eliminating an additional six business-class seats.

Seat features

The new seats come with a hard-shell exterior so passengers won't get jostled if neighbors behind them need to brace themselves to stand up.

The seats are also more generous in width. Passengers can expand the 20-inch seats by lifting the armrests -- adding 3 inches of space.

Five separate motors help passengers position the seats to their preferences. They can even save a particular position to memory so they don't have to fiddle with it again after a lavatory break.

For those who want to work on their business memos at 35,000 feet, a side table interlocks with one in the seatback to create an extra-large workspace.

But there's room for fun, too. A detachable entertainment system can play movies and games from the seatback or tray table.

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