American Airlines is confident it has made the right decision in selecting a 10-abreast configuration with articulating (read sliding) economy-class seats for its new Boeing 777-300ER widebody aircraft, saying the slimline design should create a feeling of more space for customers compared with the older economy-class seats that have a thicker density.
By contrast American currently offers a nine-abreast layout on the 777-200ERs it operates in international markets. The carrier will take its first of ten new 777-300ERs later this year ahead of operating the equipment between Dallas and Sao Paulo, Brazil.
Whether or not American’s passengers will in fact have a perception of more space in narrower seats remains to be seen. But the US major is hardly the first carrier to go 10-abreast on the 777; Air France and Emirates are among a growing list of operators that have opted for these snugger seating configurations, products that get mixed reviews when discussed in online forums.
American managing director of commercial planning and performance Jim Butler says “seat technology has come a long way” and that the articulating seats American has selected are designed to “give the customer a feeling of a lot more space than they’re used to seeing. We’re not the first to do this, there are other carriers who have done it as well, but I think overall the entire package that we are going to give the customer in the end is going to be a very good one.”
At this point American has not disclosed seat manufacturers for the new economy- and business-class seats (the latter designed by James Park Associates), but the articulating seats are meant to slide down and forward “so what it means is if you envision yourself sitting in a seat when the person in front of you reclines, their seat doesn’t come much closer to you”, Butler explains. “So you will get the impression of a lot better space than you’re used to seeing.”
The seats are also thinner than the “thicker seats that used to be made”, he remarks, “so all of that combined I think the customer will notice a much better experience”.
Asked if there is any concern over whether customers will feel like their knees are shoved under the seat in front of them Butler states: “The seat is well tested and I think the customer will see a very good experience when they get on the aircraft.”
Passengers craving more legroom will find it in American’s new premium economy ‘Main Cabin Extra’ product, which features a nine-abreast configuration in the 777-300ER, and offers 4-6 inches more legroom.
Similar to other airlines American is setting aside part of the Main Cabin Extra section for its elite customers which happen to be travelling in economy. Butler does not view the scenario as giving the seats away to those passengers, and instead concludes having a differentiated product further strengthens their loyalty. “Those customers provide an incredible amount of value to the airline, and we like to provide value back to them,” he explains. “If you are flying in the main cabin and have a differentiated product I think that only enhances their experience and hopefully translates into loyalty and repeat business.”
Butler says overall the Main Cabin Extra product will be successful in helping American’s customers – both elite and the less frequent traveller – in attainting a differentiated experience, “whether it is part of their overall travel or whether they feel it is worth paying a little extra”.
American is joining its US legacy rivals United and Delta in offering a premium economy offering, but it appears that the improved economy offering from those carriers will not be as distinctive as the product offered by some foreign airlines, including American’s oneworld alliance partner British Airways, which offers wider seats with greater pitch in its World Traveller Plus cabins, for instance.
American managing director of onboard products Alice Liu concludes that currently US domestic carriers have committed to offering the same economy-class seat with more legroom. “If you look at Delta, if you look at United, they’re not putting in a separate cabin, they’re not putting in a different seat.” Those carriers have made a significant investment in re-pitching those seats and reconfiguring the cabin, says Liu.
Could American possibly change its mind? It is possible, “but anything they do is minimum of two year away”, she says, adding: “The US industry in general seems to be committed to the strategy already of we call ‘Main Cabin Extra”, providing more pitch.”
American, meanwhile, is undertaking a sweeping overhaul of the rest of its fleet. The programme entails bringing the new Main Cabin Extra offering and full-flat business-class seats to the majority of its long-haul aircraft and offering Wi-Fi access on its international flights.
The redesign for the carrier’s existing widebody aircraft is scheduled to begin in 2014. The carrier is revamping its 777-200s, removing first class and offering 45 full-flat business seats compared with an angled-flat offering. The -200s will also feature 45 Main Cabin Extra seats and 170 seats in economy. American says it is finalising the configuration for the economy cabin on the aircraft.