US Airways Move Could Squeeze Out Upgrades

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By Keith L. Alexander
Tuesday, July 4, 2006

US Airways is considering eliminating 10 seats in the first-class sections on its transcontinental flights, which would make premium seating harder to get through frequent-flier upgrades.

The changes would most affect the carrier's Airbus A321 aircraft that operate not only on transcontinental flights but up and down the East Coast. Under the proposal, the number of first-class seats would drop to 16 from 26. The move could mean that business travelers will more often have to buy first-class tickets to get a seat in the front, instead of paying for a coach ticket and using frequent-flier miles to upgrade.

The airline plans to make a decision by the first quarter of next year.

Separate from that decision, US Airways plans this fall to add six more seats -- another row -- to its coach cabin on its A319s. That will reduce the average seat pitch, or legroom, by an inch or so to 31 to 32 inches from 31 to 33 inches. US Airways will get space for the added row by removing a closet used to store the aircraft's video equipment. No changes in the first-class cabin of the A319s are planned.

But the Tempe, Ariz.-based airline will begin removing four first-class seats on its A320s by the fourth quarter, reducing the number to 12 from 16. The carrier said it doesn't plan any changes to its A320 coach cabin.

US Airways executives said the moves are part of an effort to reconfigure its aircraft to be more in line with the America West fleet after the two carriers merged last fall. The airline also is trying to attract more paying customers in first class and to wring more revenue out of its coach seating.

"There's a lot of things that are changing," said Andrew Nocella, senior vice president of US Airways' planning and alliances. "There are more people who want to get on the airplane than we have seats."

US Airways' changes will put it in line with United Airlines, which also has 12 first-class seats on its Airbus A320. Northwest's A320 first-class cabin has 16 seats. Continental Airlines has 24 first-class seats on its Boeing 757-200, which it flies transcontinental. Delta Air Lines has 24 first-class seats on its Boeing 757, which operates on transcontinental routes.

Nocella said US Airways does not plan to reduce the amount of coach legroom below the industry standard of 31 inches.

Frequent fliers said US Airways' decision to reduce the size of its first-class cabins eliminates one of the airline's few remaining competitive perks. The airline's business travelers bemoaned the loss of many perks for years prior to the merger, but they were happy that the opportunity for fairly easy first-class upgrades had remained. US Airways had among the most first-class seats of any airline. Now some frequent fliers worry that with fewer chances for the upgrades, they will be stuck in the back of the plane, with less legroom.

US Airways frequent flier Sol Brotman called US Airways shortsighted for trying to pack more passengers on the aircraft as business is improving. The effort, he added, will alienate loyal customers who fly the airline during lean economic times as well. Brotman, a Jacksonville, Fla., dentist, said losing an inch in coach will make him look at other carriers such as Southwest that have more legroom.

"I don't know that the company is doing the right things to keep people loyal in the times they really need customers," he said. "When load factors are 82 percent, you don't have to offer a lot of incentives, but when business slows down, that's a time you really rely on your most loyal customers. And this could cost them."

Travis Mason-Bushman of Richmond, Calif., said he flew only US Airways on his frequent trips between San Francisco and the East Coast because of his ability to get a first-class upgrade. "If I can't get an upgrade, I have little incentive to fly them. I'll fly United instead. At least I get can extra legroom in their Economy Plus," Mason-Bushman said.

Despite the first-class seat reductions, Nocella insists frequent fliers will still be able to obtain their upgrades. "We plan to make sure the ability to get upgrades remains consistent," he said.

Possible Strike at Northwest: A bankruptcy judge last week allowed Northwest Airlines to reduce the pay of its flight attendants in a new contract if both sides do not come to an agreement within the next two weeks. If no agreement is achieved, Northwest's flight attendants said they would strike. A walkout could come as soon as August after the attendants give a 15-day notice, as they promised to do.

Kudos from Customers: JetBlue Airways and Continental Airlines received the highest customer satisfaction ratings in the latest annual J.D. Power and Associates survey of airline passengers.

JetBlue had the highest rankings among low-cost carriers, while Continental ranked No. 1 among network carriers. The airlines were ranked on costs and fees, flight crew, in-flight service, check-in, flight reservations and boarding and deplaning.

The findings were based on interviews of 9,344 passengers who flew on North American airlines between January and May. The survey also found that business travelers are often more difficult to satisfy than leisure passengers.

Question of the Week: Many readers wrote in last week sharing their experiences of business travel during the recent round of thunderstorms. We'd like to hear from others who have had their flights disrupted by storms. What have the airlines done well? What could they improve on? Send your comments to alexanderk@washpost.com . Please include your name and a daytime phone number.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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