Here's a riddle: What's the ultimate in luxury and the worst prison on earth? Ask any airline passenger and they'll probably tell you, a plane.
So much for our classless society: If you want to see a caste system in action, just fly. Seats are separating everyone in the neighborhood by wealth or at least the riches of lots of frequent flyer miles which amounts to the same thing. Got a spare $14,000? Then you too can fly first class from New York to Paris on Air France this fall, and if you wind up on one of their monster aircraft - the A380 can hold 853 passengers - you can spread out in a 35 inch wide seat, with nearly seven feet of space separating you from the guy in front of you.
However, if seated in steerage - sometimes known as economy class - your seat is only 19 inches wide with a mere 32 inches of seat separation. It could be worse; on Spirit Airlines, seat width is just 17-and-a-half inches wide, with 28 inches of seat-to-seat space. Never thought I'd say this but it's a good thing those new Spirit seats don't recline.
On the bright side, the airlines are on an aircraft spending spree, and while newer models may not always mean more room for you, they can provide little touches of convenience and style to make any trip less of an ordeal. And it sure doesn't hurt our economy, either.
About the economy: You probably heard that European aircraft manufacturer Airbus will begin construction on a jet assembly plant in Alabama next year. Within five years, they hope to be turning out 40 to 50 planes annually in Mobile and early projections call for the $600 million plant to employ about a thousand people.
As for the airlines, after a lengthy dry spell, they're jumping into the new plane craze with both wings. American got the ball rolling in July of last year with the largest aircraft order in history: 460 new planes with options to buy another 400-plus in the next couple of decades. It will start acquiring these narrow-body, single-aisle aircraft from the Boeing 737 and Airbus A320 families beginning next year.
In December, Southwest said it too would update its fleet with a total of 350 or so new planes to be delivered over ten years.
United made a splash this summer by announcing its own plane deal, an order from Boeing said to be worth around $9 billion. If you're wondering about the inexact figures, buying a plane is like buying a car; there's always some wiggle room in negotiations.
Now Reuters reports that Alaska, Delta and US Airways are mulling new plane buys, and there are billions at stake for both Boeing and Airbus. But what's in it for you?
A nice, cleaner ride for one thing. New planes burn less fuel than their aging counterparts and Southwest says its new aircraft will also cut CO2 emissions by 10 to 11 percent. And unless you are exclusively loyal to youthful airlines like JetBlue and Virgin American you'll find newer planes will be literally cleaner. Notice how shabby and even dirty some of the older, antiquated aircraft are? Well, when's the last time you saw a cleaning crew boarding a plane? Believe me, when flight attendants come around asking for your trash they're not doing it because it's fun; they're doing it because someone has to.