Passengers Order Up Pie-in-the-Sky Airline Amenities

By Keith L. Alexander
Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Imagine boarding an aircraft and seeing a makeshift office set up where passengers can access the Internet, send and receive faxes, and make phone calls for a fee.

Or how about in the back of the aircraft -- a hot dog stand with someone asking if you want mustard on your wiener? Or how about a wet bar for those bumpy flights?

Sound crazy? Hey -- at a time when airlines are looking to find extra revenue while redesigning their aircraft, some frequent fliers believe they have just the idea.

Recently, American Airlines announced plans to remove the galleys in the coach section of its MD-80 aircraft and replace them with four seats by September. And Delta Air Lines said that by this summer, it would reduce the size of crew rest areas on Boeing 767s used on European flights. The space will be used for 12 additional seats per aircraft. Other airlines expect to reconfigure their aircraft to free up space for additional revenue enhancements.

So as the nation's airlines are looking at redesigning their planes, BizClass asked its readers: What features would you most like to see your favorite airline add to planes with the new space?

A majority of readers hoped the airlines would use the space to create extra legroom. On a recent 10-hour-or-so American Airlines flight from Dallas to Buenos Aires, frequent traveler Banks Mitchum of Springfield said he was not able to cross his legs, nor was he able to comfortably view his laptop because the row of seats in front of him on the Boeing 767 was so close.

"It was, without a doubt, the most uncomfortable flight I've ever had," Mitchum said. "Flying today is a real chore by any definition and one to be avoided, if possible. I don't believe [the airlines are] helping themselves in the long run by making the passenger more miserable."

But using the space to create more legroom probably won't happen. American Airlines -- the world's largest carrier -- removed rows of seats from its aircraft in 2000 as part of its "More Room Throughout Coach" marketing blitz. At that time, the airline's seat pitch, or legroom, increased to 34 inches from 32 inches. By 2004, once American started losing money, it replaced the seats, actually creating less room throughout coach and returning to the 32-inch industry standard.

Miami law clerk Michael Kieval had one of the most common suggestions: Add lavatories or expand the ones currently on the aircraft. Apparently, many airline passengers are weary of trying to use the restroom in a space the size of a phone booth.

"Why do the physically challenged or larger-sized travelers need to fold themselves up just to use the facilities on a flight?" asked consultant Jeff De Cagna of Arlington. "I don't think the airlines need more seats. They need more service that returns some measure of passenger dignity to the postmodern experience of air travel."

Craig Furuta, a Department of Defense consultant from Woodley Park, suggested adding a shower, especially for transcontinental or international flights. On flights over the Pacific, Furuta said airlines should have a sushi bar. Or even a snack bar where passengers can order the delicacies of the country they are visiting -- he called it a "culture bar" -- that would eschew the standard airline fare of potato chips and cookies.

Len Coris, president of Watermill Financial Group in Tucson, said he'd like to see the space used for additional seats in the first-class cabin so more passengers could secure upgrades.

Some of these ideas, airline industry experts say, are highly unlikely. But some are possible. For example, last year, American did add extra seats to first-class cabins on its MD-80s.

"Domestically, everyone is trying to reach that middle ground where you get revenue and satisfy your customers," said American spokesman Tim Wagner. "We do survey our customers continually and have been known to adapt."

Chicago Web site designer Lynn Randolph said that for long flights, airlines could erect soundproof partitions and create a small conference room passengers could rent for meetings or to hold conference calls.

Houston travel-program consultant J. Grant Caplan would like to see airlines offer an "office in the sky" where passengers pay to use the Internet and phone. Such an idea could actually be a cost-saving one for the carriers, as the airlines would not have to wire an entire aircraft to put phones at each seat.

Retired insurance salesman Arne Munk Pedersen of Winchester -- who hates flying -- said that in addition to an Amtrak ticket counter (his preferred method of travel), airlines could have a vendor selling half-smokes.

If passengers are eventually allowed to use cell phones -- which seems to be more of a possibility each year -- the space could be used to create a soundproof area where passengers could sit and yell away into their phones.

Though some frequent-flier suggestions for the extra space are exotic, others are much simpler. For instance: What about vending machines? Capitol Hill government consultant Sean Fox thought vending machines would give passengers more options for snacks than the current handouts, and airlines could get a cut of the profits. But even simple plans could have their drawbacks -- it's likely that flight attendants would not be fond of having passengers walking back and forth to the machine to get that Twix bar.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company