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ATW Editor's Blog

If a third of my seat has a 25 inch pitch, shouldn’t the airline pay me an ancillary fee?

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I’m writing this blog from onboard US Airways/AA flight 595 from Phoenix to Washington National. I don’t normally get into the traveler thing or flight reviews, but this flight and my particular seat got me thinking.  Let me explain.

First, this is a four-hour flight on a Boeing 757. My flight to Phoenix four days ago was an Airbus A321. The comparisons, when the airline, service and flight times are the same, are worth noting. Biggest one-on-one difference: the overhead bins.  Both flights were packed full but everyone on the A321 got to keep their carryon bags. Not so with the 757, where the number of passengers outweighs the relatively small size of the overhead bins. I saw this problem ahead of time and checked my (totally compliant) carryon bag, but it was not a concern with the A321.

Second, the 757 just looks and feels its age. This is interesting in light of one of the panels I covered at the Phoenix International Aviation Conference, where American Airlines’ VP-network planning Charles Schubert spoke of the need to find a direct replacement for the 757. Schubert said they have a few years to address that concern, and I realize that he was speaking from an operational and aircraft-life perspective. But I would argue that from the customer perspective, especially on the transatlantic routes that all three US majors still use the 757, keeping this aircraft in service for several more years will require some major cabin upgrades.

And now to the real crux of my particular problem on this aircraft. Here's a photo I took. I selected a window exit, seat 27A. Sounds good –a so-called ‘premium seat’ -- until you see it.  Sticking at least six inches into this seat is what I believe is the holder for the emergency shoot/life raft (no jokes about how useful a life raft is on a flight from Phoenix to DC!) Not only do I not have a seat pocket in front of me for anything I would like to keep handy, but a third of my 16.5 inch-wide seat (ahem, A321 = 18 inches), has a 25 inch pitch. I’m guessing the numbers here, but the guy next to me agreed with my assessments. Makes Spirit Airlines look luxurious.

To sit in this seat you are required to do a sideways thing, with your legs slewed away from your butt. I don’t need a chiropractor to tell me how healthy that is for my spine over a four-hour slew. 

But it occurred to me that this seat offers a new way to think about ancillary fees. I’m all in favor of ancillaries, but how about – for these types of seat oddities – have them go the other way? Offer a $25-$50 refund on your ticket if you are willing to take this seat. The airline and the discount-receiving passenger would have done me a big favor, maybe even freeing up an aisle seat that I would have been happy to pay for.

Meanwhile, because the plane was full and several people would have checked in at the airport to find only middle seats available, a woman boarded with a small child. They were sitting a couple of rows behind me but in separate rows, each with a middle seat. The woman asked, very nicely, if anyone was willing to swap seats so she could sit with her child. This happened to be Mothers’ Day, so maybe it was not surprising that a man immediately gave up his aisle seat. That was nice to see. But it doesn’t always work so sweetly.

So how about, in a dynamic ancillary pricing world, there was a way for that man to get a $25 ticket refund because he gave up his aisle seat? He would feel good about the airline, better about his middle seat, and you might get more people willing to do the same for families in these situations.

There’s a lot of talk today about using ancillaries to personalize service and using IT to enable that customization. A flight attendant with an iPad and the right software could quickly confirm that someone had offered up a premium seat to help another passenger and the refund transaction would be logged.

But back to the 757. Airlines that operate it love its unbeatable efficiencies on long, thin routes. Good examples are Newark-Edinburgh or JFK-Manchester, UK. But neither Airbus nor Boeing is willing to build an all-new direct replacement for the 757; the closest that might happen is a long-range A321, but Airbus has not yet committed to even that.

But there’s no doubt that from the passenger perspective, the 757 is now falling behind. That’s going to be even more noticeable when the A320neo and 737 MAX enter service. So what my Phoenix flight made me wonder was whether Boeing would consider doing a Sky Interior cabin for the 757, as it did for the 737? That has proven to be a popular option with the 737, installed new or as an upgrade. It could be popular on the 757 too; the question is whether the market is large enough to make it worth Boeing’s while.

And finally, given that from seat 27A, I am the passenger who most needs to know how to open that door and deploy that chute/life raft, the safety instructions were given via an overhead video screen. Cue picture of my line of sight for that screen.

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