Putting the squeeze on knees

In pursuit of that lucrative business-travel dollar, two airlines recently renamed and expanded their first class cabins. TWA introduced a new “Trans World First” section, while US Airways unveiled “Envoy” class to Europe.

But a side-by-side comparison suggests there’s a good way to enhance conditions in the front of the plane-and a bad way.

US Airways’ upgrade gives first-class passengers 55 inches between seats instead of 44 inches. They made room by ripping out an entire row of economy class seats.

TWA, on the other hand, didn’t add legroom in First Class-the new premium seats still come with only 36 inches-a little tight even for TWA’s domestic routes. Instead of more space, TWA added more seats. It enlarged its World First cabin from 12 to 20.

Moreover, TWA made the switch without sacrificing seats. The airline just squeezed its economy class seats closer together. TWA insists passengers benefit. With 60 percent more first class seats, the carrier points out, your chances of getting an upgrade improve dramatically.

TWA’s strategy isn’t surprising in light of soaring passenger numbers, says Vince Vitti, chief executive at corporate travel agency VTS Travel in New York. “The temptation to make economy class more narrow is enormous,” he says. “But if you put in one more row, everyone winds up with their knees in their nose. There isn’t a lot of room to go.”

Fortunately, TWA’s strategy isn’t as bad as it looks. It is shaving the inches off its old Comfort Class seats in the back of the plane, which were roomier than typical economy class seats to begin with. The St. Louis airline two years ago began phasing out Comfort Class, and the introduction of Trans World First just marked the end of the process.

“Yes, we took the extra leg room and moved it to the front of the cabin,” admits TWA spokesman Donn Walker. “We got smart. We said, ‘If you’re not going to pay for it, we’re going to give you the same amount of leg room as you’d get on any other airline.”

And give the extra legroom to someone who is paying for it? Not exactly. At a press conference introducing TWA’s revamped configuration, its vice president of marketing estimated that only two to three percent of passengers actually pay for first class. So TWA is really doing this as a reward for the full-fare paying business traveler who’s likely to get an upgrade.

I think TWA should have followed US Airways’ example and removed a row of economy class seats, leaving Comfort Class intact. It had already made a name for itself among road warriors who weren’t flying enough to qualify for an upgrade. They liked the additional space in the Comfort Class cabin, and given a choice, they would fly TWA.

Alas, that doesn’t make much business sense. Peter Ostrowski, a senior vice president at Plog Research in Los Angeles, said that while travelers liked Comfort Class, the additional space didn’t translate into more revenue for the ailing airline.

Ostrowski understands the reasons behind the redesign. “Business travelers pay a premium for their seats. They deserve better,” he says. “Why give the guys in the back of the bus more than they can pay for?”

TWA’s promises of more upgrades is a little misleading, because implies most of us can get the royal treatment. We can’t. By my calculations, you stood a one-in-eleven chance of getting upgraded pre Trans World First. Now it’s about one in seven.

For truly comfortable seats, we have to fly Midwest Express or Kiwi International, the only two airlines that have resisted the narrowing trend so far.

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