Aug. 30, 2010— -- Ask most passengers what they think of air travel these days and you're likely to get a grimace.
Travelers are putting up with packed planes, uncomfortable seats and overhead bins stuffed fuller than a hot dog-eating contestant.
It's not just passengers shouting 'enough!' but, remarkably, so are some airlines. Many are deciding it's time to spend some money to spruce up their cabins; and not just in first class. Even the lowly coach passenger may notice some differences.
Don't get too excited -- no one is bringing back free food or eliminating fees -- but airlines are putting some of their hard earned cash into refurbishing, redecorating and even rebuilding their cabins.
The most pervasive change: installing Wi-Fi -- to allow gadget-obsessed travelers the ability to surf the web and check e-mail while in flight. Delta now has Wi-Fi on 95 percent of its domestic fleet, more than 500 aircraft.
US Airways has outfitted all its Airbus A-321 aircraft, United offers it on many transcontinental flights and American's adding it to its Boeing 737s. Even low-cost carrier Southwest is jumping on the bandwagon; four planes wired so far, all of its fleet within two years. AirTran offers Wi-Fi on all its flights and Alaska Airlines will be there by the end of the year.
Of course, this not only helps passengers but the airline, too. Expect to pay for Wi-Fi access.
And how about those seats? Carriers are increasingly installing seats that lay down flat in first and business class. As for the back of the bus, US Airways is putting in leather seats in coach, United and Delta in some of their jets too.
American Airlines Jet Makeover
But for the ultimate in makeovers, look no further than American Airlines.
The carrier is literally stripping the interiors of its older Boeing 737s -- 76 aircraft in all. They are ripping out old ceiling TV monitors, stripping seats, wires and bathrooms.
"We want to make sure all of the bells and whistles are provided," said Brian Trujillo, American's 737 project manager.
The planes average only eight years old but that's ancient compared to the new 737s American is purchasing. So the technical crew chief on the project, Sattar Hussein, says they're redoing the older aircraft, "really for customer comfort and trying to keep up with the new deliveries that we have, which are more up-to-date."
Imagine taking a house down to its studs and then starting over.
That's just about what American is doing with the aircraft. The massive project is underway at the company's giant maintenance hangar in Tulsa, Okla. Four aircraft at time, 351 maintenance technicians working 24-hours shifts, five days a week.
It takes 21 days to complete just one plane. Yes, three weeks for each jet.
American is just finishing the eighth one now and has 68 more to go.
The airline says it's trying to be responsive to what it's finding in customer surveys. What do their customers want?
"The ability to watch a movie, a comfortable seat to watch in and a very professional looking cabin," Trujillo said.
So what will American's customers get? Well, there will be new seats. "First of all, you're going to notice the comfort of the seat," Sattar promised.
The new seats in coach class will recline differently, as the back moves back, the seat bottom moves forward to give more of a recline and to give more knee-room to the person sitting behind.
"He is not going to affect the passenger behind or in front," Sattar said.
Good thing, because American will be squeezing in two extra rows, 12 more seats on the planes. Once redone, they'll carry 160 passengers, up from 148. So the pitch, or the distance between seats, will narrow an inch or two. (Old planes had 32 or 33 inches of room, depending on the row. The redone jets will offer 31 inches.)
But the airline insists passengers won't notice because of the new seat design and because they're also removing the rear galleys and moving bathrooms to make room.
Larger Airline Overhead Bin Space
What might be even more exciting than the seats, though, is overhead bins that will hold more bags.
American's bins on the redone 737s will hold five or six bags each, instead of three. The airline is accomplishing this with a slight of hand. The bins themselves stay the same but American is adding doors that curve outward and a slight ramp at the front edge of the bin.
That allows roller bags to slip in wheels first and tilt slightly upward to fit right into the curve of the new door. Voila, space is magically doubled.
American is also ripping out older, clunky TV monitors that hang down the center aisle, the kind that tall passengers have to watch out for. They're replacing them with LCD flat screens that will drop down below the luggage bins, one located every few aisles.
But the biggest and most challenging changes are ones that passengers will never see. The carrier has to reinforce the floor in the rear of the planes where the new rows of seats will replace galleys. And they're installing about 3,000 feet -- more than half a mile -- of new wiring. That includes wiring for plugs that will allow passengers to keep their laptops powered-up.
American hopes to have all 76 of its older 737s spruced up by the end of next year.
All the money on upgrades is cash the airlines would have been hard pressed to spend a few years ago. Now, the major U.S. carriers have enjoyed seven months of profits, giving them a bit of breathing room. Making the upgrades is also important to stay competitive.
Let's face it, all the changes airlines are making won't turn each flight into a relaxing, pleasurable experience. But every little bit can help.
Now, about those security lines?