By Chris O'Malley
May 12, 2002
American Trans Air is betting that more efficient aircraft with passenger-friendly features will help it boost profitability and grab market share.
If it has to put its corporate butt on the line, at least it picked the right seats, said Randy Marlar.
ATA approached four seat manufacturers, challenging them to provide the most comfortable seats, "that being it's a fact of life your butt gets numb over time," said the airline's vice president of technical operations planning.
Behind the behind is engineering, of course, which included picking the right foam density and support structure. Many airplane seats have metal shelf under the seat cushion, while ATA's new seats have a fabric strip resembling a director's chair. Fabric is less durable, "but we elected to go with comfort."
Seats aboard its new Boeing 737-800s also have headrests that move up and down, and ears that fold in to prevent a sleeping passenger's head from drooping onto the shoulder of the person in the next seat.
Seats also are spaced farther apart: 32 inches versus 30 inches, as measured from one part of a seat to the same place on the seat ahead or behind.
"When the person (in front) leans back and you put your tray table down, it's not right there on your belly," said Marlar.
Most striking about the new seats, at least for those who schlep in coach class, are their leather surfaces.
Leather covers cost upward of $200 per seat, versus $75 for fabric. But unlike cloth, the covers don't have to be removed for periodic dry cleaning, just wiped down in place with leather cleaner. And while cloth seats last only 2 or 3 years, leather may last up to 7 years if well-maintained.
"We think the leather cushions will save us over 20 percent over fabric over a seven-year cycle."
Other perks of the new 737s include flat-screen liquid crystal televisions and overhead bins without the support pillars that make it difficult to load carry-on luggage.
In the belly of the plane is a conveyor system that ATA said helps speed loading and unloading of checked baggage and reduces damage.
Lavatories use new "easy-to-service vacuum lavatories" that "help make such intense use possible," according to Boeing. Enough said.
The effect of all of these features can have a positive impact, particularly on a smaller carrier, said Michael Boyd, president of Evergreen, Colo.-based aviation consulting firm The Boyd Group.
"ATA understands the secret of Southwest Airlines. It's not (just) low fares, it's service that makes you want to fly again."
He said other airlines are taking a renewed focus on onboard comfort, including American Airlines' initiative to move seat spacing up to 35 inches in coach class.
Some also have retained perks. Continental Airlines bucked an industry trend to drop in-flight meal service after Sept. 11. The industry now is swinging back to meals.