Sept. 14, 2012 -- 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.
But when it comes to new planes the biggest deal in terms of passenger perks for most of us is more overhead bin space; sure, it's great for the carry-on contingent but even those who check a bag will appreciate how much faster it is to get on an aircraft and settled in your seat thanks to roomier bins. It might even translate into a few extra minutes of sleep on day of departure.
Other cool things: Many new planes have ambient or mood lighting that you can change according to whim, and it helps that many newer planes are designed to optically "look bigger" which gets you off on the right psychological foot. Plus there are personal TV screens and all the electronic connections a gadget junkie could ask for; now if only we weren't still forced to turn those devices off we might be getting somewhere. As for the Dreamliner, it has bigger windows without those clunky, view-obscuring shades. Instead, you press a dimmer switch that darkens the window to your specifications (I like it, but I've heard some Japan Airlines customers don't think it gets dark enough).
Sometimes, it's how an airline customizes a plane that makes all the difference. Etihad Airways is probably the leader in this field and if you've never heard of the Abu Dhabi-based carrier, it's time you did since they're always winning prestigious awards.
Etihad's first class comes with a seat that will massage you then turns into a 6'8" long lie-flat bed, complete with sheets, blankets, duvet, full size pillow, all in your own suite. Of course there's the obligatory flat screen TV, personal mini-bar not to mention a dedicated changing room with full length mirror. The icing on the cake: Seats with leather from Poltrona Frau, the same folks that supply interiors for Ferrari. What's it cost? First class from New York to Abu Dhabi in October runs close to $15,000 round-trip.
Maybe your next flight won't resemble a five-star hotel, but take heart. Designs in the front of the cabin tend to drive designs in the back over time, in the same way luxury car features eventually make their way into the economy models. In the meantime, we can dream.
The opinions expressed by Rick Seaney are his alone and not those of ABC News.