Seat Wars: The Airlines Strike Back

Greenberg is a Los Angeles free-lance writer

Legend has it that Orville and Wilbur Wright were convinced that people who flew in flying machines would be most comfortable if they did so lying on their stomachs.

It made sense then, because flight distances were measured in hundreds of feet, not in miles.

Thankfully, most aviation pioneers decided against the horizontal experience and settled on sitting as the preferred flying posture. The first Ford Tri-motors offered stiff cane-backed chairs, but it wasn't long before passenger comfort became the focus of intense competition among airlines.

One French manufacturer outfitted his plane with overstuffed armchairs and lounging divans. Even the Douglas DC-2 offered its 14 passengers upholstered contour seats, with thick carpeting and footrests.

Comfort in Early Planes

In later years the Boeing Stratocruisers, the Lockheed Constellations and even the DC-7s catered to passenger seat comfort. But it seemed that the era of passenger comfort ended when the first Boeing 707s and Douglas DC-8s were introduced.

The jet age quickly reduced standard seat distances from 40 inches to 36 inches, then 34 and even 32 inches.

It was no longer comfortable to fly. When the jumbos arrived, with 10-across seating in coach, it seemed that people stopped dressing up to enjoy their flights. Instead, they dressed down, hoping just to survive them.

To be sure, the airline seat remains a serious problem for many passengers. Few things are less enjoyable than an uncomfortable, narrow, hard seat on a long and crowded flight.

But now, thanks to falling fuel costs and stiff competition on international routes, some airlines have done a turnabout on seats and seating. In many cases it has led to a much more comfortable ride.

First With Sleeper Seats

On international runs, most carriers offer--and boast about--sleeper seats in first class. Pan Am was one of the first to offer them.

In fact, airline seats have always been a major part of Pan Am's advertising campaigns. You might remember that the airline once advertised "dining in the air for four" in the upstairs lounges of its 747s. The lounges are gone now, but the airline's advertising is still firmly focused on seats.

Pan Am's first sleeper seats were 24 inches wide and reclined 50 degrees. (The carrier has since installed sleeper seats that recline 60 degrees.)

On many carriers, the first business-class seats were coach seats; the only differences were the amenities offered to business-class passengers--different menu, free drinks and headsets. Now, because of stiff competition, the old coach seats have been replaced by the old first-class seats.

Some airlines have gone one step further and have installed all new seats. TWA's new Ambassador-class seats, for example, add crucial extra inches. They're nearly 21 inches wide, with more than enough space.

Lighter Means Cost-Saving

The new seats are also much lighter, offering a considerable weight and fuel saving to the airlines. For example, when one airline converted to the new lightweight seats on its Lockheed 1011s, it saved 2,000 pounds per flight.

"What this means," says one airline spokesman, "is that the new seats will pay for themselves in two years."

But that doesn't always mean that coach passengers will benefit. Lighter seats can also mean that the airline can increase seating density in the back of the plane. United Airlines, for example, added 22 seats to its short-haul 737s and still reduced the weight of each plane by more than 1,200 pounds.

More often than not, especially on heavily traveled domestic routes, the coach passenger will not feel appreciably better than in the past when it comes to seating comfort.

There are exceptions.

Western Airlines eliminated more than 1,000 coach seats in its fleet of 727s and 737s to increase leg room in those aircraft.

Yet, while some carriers added leg room, they did nothing to increase the comfort of the seats.

Knees Get Scraped

Many coach seats still don't recline more than a few inches. On other carriers, one hopes that the seats don't recline at all. The leg room is so tight that knees get scraped and meal trays are pushed into chests when the person in front of you pushes the button and sits back.

But every airline is different, depending upon the market it serves and the competition. Don't expect comfortable coach seats on United flights between Los Angeles and San Francisco, Western flights between Los Angeles and Las Vegas or the Eastern shuttle between New York and Washington.

United's coach seats on its new Pacific service are extremely comfortable. And both American and United have installed sleeper seats in first-class sections because of their new international routes.

But the most comfortable sleeper seats belong to Pan Am. In fact, the reason it's hard to get a first-class reservation on the airline's transcontinental flights is the seating.Because virtually all of Pan Am's planes are used for international service, the airline uses the big sleeper seats on all of its wide-body flights to stay competitive.

Sleeper Seats Differ

And now Northwest Orient has gone a step further. It is the only carrier offering sleeper seats in business class (available by reservation only).

Each sleeper seat on each airline is different, and the airlines sometimes have problems selecting seats to fit different planes that they fly.

On the L-1011 aircraft flown by TWA, the sleeper seats offer a 49-inch pitch and lower into a semi-reclining position. TWA's 747 sleeper seats have a 57-inch pitch.

British Airways thoroughly researched its sleeper seats before spending nearly $2 million to install the first 600 of them on 26 aircraft. The seats are 21 inches wide, have a 56-inch pitch and are 62 inches long fully reclined.

These seats were designed in consultation with Guys Hospital in London, a facility that specializes in seating and spinal research. British Airways also redesigned its business-class (or "Super Club") seats. The airline bought aluminum alloy seats and configured them six abreast on most flights. (Caution: These seats are designed to be converted to nine-across configurations for crowded flights.)

Still, the seats also offer two inches more knee and leg room than the older seats.

Six-foot Bed, Kimono

But if you're like the Wright brothers and insist on flying lying down, I suggest perhaps the ultimate long-distance seating experience. A few years ago Japan Air Lines offered "sky beds" on some of its longer flights.

For a surcharge of 20% above normal first-class fares, the airline provided a curtained six-foot bed and a cotton kimono.

But JAL removed them when too many stewardesses complained of being grabbed and fondled on long flights.

Philippine Airlines still offers beds on all of its 747 flights. To be sure, it's the most comfortable way to make the 7,600-mile trip across the Pacific. The airline's "Cloud Nine" service features 14 very comfortable berths. The airline will even sell you a "Cloud Nine" loose-fitting jump suit so you needn't sleep in your clothes.

The sky beds are FAA certified for takeoffs and landings. On the San Francisco-Manila flights, experienced first-class passengers have their dinner and then retire to the upper deck. When the plane lands in Honolulu for refueling, they sleep through the stopover.

Finally, for those who can't afford to fly in such style, the next best choice is a wide-body flight with a light load.

Given the choice between first class and coach, I've often found it just as comfortable to sleep, fully reclined, stretched across a row of five coach seats in the back of a 747.

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