Friday, February 9, 2001
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Posted on: Friday, February 9, 2001

American Airline heeds complaints, fixes seats

Graphic: Passengers grumble about seats

USA Today

American Airlines has fixed thousands of business-class seats after passengers complained about features that didn’t work properly.

In recent months, some business-class customers who complained have received travel vouchers and seat upgrades for future flights.

American said it is nearly finished fixing problems on 3,400 business-class seats installed two years ago in its Boeing 777 and 767 jets. Spokeswoman Andrea Rader said the number of passenger complaints is low compared with the "wonderful comments" the airline has received about the seats.

Complaints about business-class service are uncommon. Airlines every few years spend millions of dollars overhauling their business-class services and generally do it with great care.

International business-class fliers tend to be airlines’ best customers: people who may pay $5,000 or more for a seat or cash in wads of frequent-flier miles to get upgraded from coach.

Airlines jockey to offer the most legroom, best menus and most comfortable seats for sleeping.

More than a dozen American Airlines fliers have been posting complaints about the business-class seats on traveler Web site FlyerTalk since October.

"The seats are no improvement on the old ones, and they break," said Tom McCallum of the Cayman Islands, an elite member of American’s frequent-flier program.

Features of the seats include ergonomic controls, six-way adjustable leather headrests, personal reading lights, laptop power ports and adjustable lumbar supports — inflatable cushions attached to the seats to provide lower back support.

American’s business-class seats are more comfortable than previous ones, according to a study by Skytrax Research ( of Oxford, England. Skytrax is an independent firm that studies airline product and service standards.

American’s seats ranked No. 21 for comfort among those of 66 airlines that Skytrax evaluated in 2000, up from No. 33 in 1999. British Airways’ business-class seats ranked No. 1. No. 3 Delta and No. 4 Continental were the only U.S. airlines in the top 10.

Gripes about American Airlines’ business-class seats included:

Lumbar supports. The seat back has an inflatable cushion for lower-back support that passengers are supposed to be able to inflate or deflate to their preference. Some fliers say the inflate control doesn’t work reliably.

Mike Borsetti of San Francisco said the cushion repeatedly inflated on its own during his nine-hour flight from Chicago to Rome two weeks ago.

"I’d wake up in the middle of the night and basically fight with the thing," he said. "All of a sudden, you have a really hard bubble in your lower back that you have to push real hard to deflate."

Headrests. Sometimes the headrests won’t stay up, according to Paul Fichter of Seattle.

"It bugs me so much," he said. "It forces me into this awkward leaning position."

Uncomfortable leg rests. Edward Plaisted, managing director of Skytrax, said the leg rest of American’s business-class seats "doesn’t go up far enough to give proper support to the lower part of the leg. · The leg rest is fairly poor."

Recline controls. Often the seats get stuck in reclining position, McCallum said, adding that even the slightest inconvenience bothers frequent fliers like him.

"When you start traveling a lot, the romance is gone," he said. "So what upsets you is the stuff that disrupts your life."

Plaisted said that when he and his colleagues tested American’s business-class seats, they found the lumbar support to be "intrusive." They said headrests "didn’t have the right levels of adjustment" and seat backs didn’t give enough support to the shoulders.

"American’s frequent fliers were expecting something better," he said.

He said his team did not find similar problems with business-class seats on other airlines that also feature adjustable headrests and lumbar supports.

American Airlines is not blaming problems with the business-class seats on its supplier, B/E Aerospace of Wellington, Fla., one of the world’s largest manufacturers of aircraft interior products.

B/E reported it had "major production problems" in its Seating Products Group in November 1999, three months after announcing its contract with American. Those problems resulted in delayed deliveries, penalties and warranty claims, according to B/E’s annual report for fiscal 2000, which ended last February.

It is not clear whether American’s seats were affected by the production problems. B/E did not return repeated phone calls.

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