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Airlines Shoehorn Passengers Into Skinnier Jets

February 17, 1995

Peter Chaffetz didn’t think flying cross-country could get any more uncomfortable. Then he stepped on board one of United Airlines’ new planes.

Gone was the wide-body jet he had come to expect for long-distance travel. In its place was a skinny Boeing 757 with less legroom, fewer overhead bins and smaller seats. Worst of all, Mr. Chaffetz felt trapped in his seat for hours, because the plane only had one aisle. ``This is progress?″ asks the Los Angeles attorney.

The airline industry has spent more than $25 billion over the past four years on a new fleet of jets for its most popular U.S. routes _ and crowded passengers in the process. In a move to cut costs, most airlines put new _ but decidedly narrower _ planes on routes that had once been the province of jumbo jets. The result: Travelers get about half as much cabin space on most three-to-five-hour flights.

``These are the kinds of planes that only an airline treasurer could like,″ says Ed Perkins, editor of Consumer Reports Travel Letter. ``The airlines have just shrunk things down to an impossible level.″

Some travelers dislike the skinny models so much they go to great lengths to avoid them _ including taking longer flights and stopping in cities they don’t want to visit. But even these people are running out of options. Every flight of UAL Corp.’s United between Newark, N.J., and Los Angeles is on a narrow-body jet, not to mention hundreds of other United flights between other cities. And narrow-bodies are the only jets USAir Group has ordered for the rest of the decade. ``We love it,″ says a spokeswoman for the carrier. ``It’s been a very efficient, fuel-conscious plane.″

Known as ``stretch″ jets, the new models are elongated versions of the industry’s standard narrow-bodies, with better engine power and about 50 more seats. They were developed more than a decade ago but became especially attractive at the depth of the industry’s recession a few years ago, when airlines started retiring their gas-guzzling jumbo jets. Before then, the airlines almost never used skinny jets on long-distance routes because they didn’t have the range.

Since turning to the new models, the airlines have discovered two big advantages: They burn about half as much fuel as a wide-body and fly with a much higher ratio of occupied to empty seats. ``It doesn’t pay to fly a jumbo jet around half empty,″ says Harold Shenton, vice president of Avmark Inc., an aviation consulting firm in Arlington, Va., who estimates that 757s are $2,000 to $4,000 cheaper to operate per hour than wide-bodies. ``The economics are just irresistible,″ he says.

But in the process, people are being squeezed into smaller planes for longer distances: Boston to Las Vegas, Baltimore to San Francisco, even Miami to Seattle, a 6 1/2-hour haul covering 2,700 air miles. In its ``comfort index,″ Consumer Reports Travel Letter ranks the Boeing 757 dead last among all long-distance planes, not only because the cabins are smaller but because airlines used the new design to cut other corners. Many carriers, for instance, have shaved 2 inches off the legroom in coach and reduced seat width by an inch. Even the cushions on the back of the seats are flatter.

``I suggested to the airlines that they use the thinner seat backs to add more legroom,″ says Stan Plog, of Plog Research, a California-based travel research firm. ``Instead, they decided to add an extra row of seats.″

To get around all this, Donald Mortenson of Seattle has turned to some desperate measures. For his regular trip to the East Coast, he now flies 200 miles out of his way and stops in Pittsburgh, just to guarantee a seat on a large jet on USAir. The alternative routing costs him $50 more and a half day in the Pittsburgh airport. ``But I just can’t sit with my face to my knees for four hours anymore,″ says the administration official for Seattle Pacific University.

Similarly, Anita Samuels didn’t balk at paying $300 more to get on a dowdy old 747 wide-body instead of a new 757, for a New York to Los Angeles flight. ``You feel like a pretzel″ on the new jet, the retiree says.

And in New York, Patricia Giuliano of Mattituck Travel Services has had to become an expert on the arcana of cabin configuration. Until recently, she says, nobody ever asked her which plane model she was booking them on; all that mattered were low fares and frequent-flier miles. ``Now people come in sounding like aviation experts,″ she says.

Of all travelers, business and first-class passengers may well have the biggest beef. Airlines charge the same for a first-class transcontinental ticket, whether or not the jet is a jumbo. Yet even airlines concede wide-bodies have far better first-class service, with more luxurious seating, personal video screens and more flight attendants. Business fliers, meanwhile, have essentially been relegated to coach on the skinnier jets. The reason? The jets don’t have any room for business-class sections.

A spokesman for AMR Corp.’s American Airlines, one of the nation’s largest carriers, says he isn’t surprised passengers are grumbling about being squeezed. He points out that American still uses a lot of giant DC-10s on its New York to Los Angeles route. ``We see it as a marketing advantage,″ he says. ``People tell us they love the big jets.″

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