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American's three-class jets dwindle as first-class demand wanes

 

By Mary Schlangenstein
(c) 2014, Bloomberg News.

DALLAS – Three-class cabins on international jets, once a hallmark of passenger pampering, are dwindling at the world's largest carrier.

Waning customer interest in the costliest tickets prompted American Airlines to drop first class as it adds seats to its 47 long-haul Boeing 777-200s. The aircraft will get new lie-flat business seats – plusher than coach, but lacking first-class flourishes such as pajamas, slippers and hors d'oeuvres.

"We're responding to what demand is," Casey Norton, an American spokesman, said this week. "We've looked at what the demand level is for business and also what we need in the main cabin as well. That's where we think we've hit the sweet spot."

The changes will leave American with international three-class service – first, business and economy – only on the 777-300ER, the carrier's biggest aircraft. Fort Worth-based American has 14 of those planes flying on some of its most-lucrative overseas routes, such as Miami-Sao Paulo, while using the 777-200 for city pairs including Chicago-Beijing.

Upgrading business cabins is a bet on making money by selling more of those premium seats than costlier first-class fares. A refundable, round-trip first-class ticket for a Chicago-Beijing trip departing tomorrow costs as much as $37,948, according to American's website. That's almost double the price of a comparable business-class seat, and four times as much as a non-refundable business ticket.

While plans for upgrades to American's international fleet first were announced in May 2012 – when the airline was in bankruptcy and before the 2013 merger with US Airways Group – the first of the 777-200s is only now being refitted.

Scaling back three-cabin service pushes American closer to other global airlines that have abandoned or limited first-class seating. With lie-flat beds now standard in business cabins, carriers such as Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines have opted to make that level their most-exclusive offering.

United Airlines, the world's second-biggest carrier, still has three-class jets on some routes. American has three cabins on one domestic plane type: The Airbus A321T configured for cross-country flights between New York's Kennedy airport and Los Angeles, and between Kennedy and San Francisco.

American initially will boost seating on 22 of the 777-200s to 260 from 247, completing that work in 2015's third quarter. In the middle of next year, American will start taking all the planes to 289 seats. That program will conclude in late 2016, Norton said.

The pitch, or distance between one point on a seat to the same point on the next row, won't change in the retrofits, Norton said.

Once all the work is done, the 777-200 will have 37 business-class seats that take up more room than the current version. Each will have aisle access and will convert to a 6- foot, 4 1/2-inch (1.9-meter) life-flat bed. Main-cabin seats will increase to 252 from 194. The larger 777-300ER has eight first-class seats, 52 in business and 250 in the main cabin, according to the SeatGuru travel website.

"That's why we have different fleet types," said Jenna Arnold, an American spokeswoman. "The -300s are in markets where customers want, and will pay for, first-class cabins."

This report compiled with assistance from Benedikt Kammel in Berlin.

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