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American to let its passengers stretch a bit

At a cost of $70-million, the airline is adding 3 to 5 inches of legroom to every seat. Others are expected to do so eventually.

Responding to years of complaints that passengers are packed into airplanes like sardines, American Airlines announced Thursday that it is adding 3 to 5 inches of legroom for every coach seat.

American's plan should eventually lead to more space for nearly everyone who flies. Most airlines are likely to follow suit to avoid losing passengers to American, analysts said.

"The airlines that do it first will attract more of the premium passengers," said Ray Neidl, an analyst with ING Barings. "They will have to match it."

American unveiled the plan at a glitzy Washington news conference that featured a mock-up of an airplane with motorized seats to demonstrate the difference in legroom. Actors portraying passengers sat scrunched in the old seats and then stretched their legs and smiled when the seats expanded.

"Even tall customers can now cross their legs," said Donald J. Carty, American's chairman and chief executive officer.

Adding legroom is costly and surprisingly complicated.

Workers can't just remove two rows of seats in each plane. They must also rebuild the entire cabin so that reading lights and air conditioning vents match the new seats. The first American plane with the new seats will go into service next week, but the entire 609-plane domestic fleet won't be overhauled until November. It will take until next March to renovate the international planes.

The change will cost American about $70-million, but Carty predicted that it will not lead to an increase in fares. "We will stay competitive on pricing," he said.

Carty said the company can afford the seats because the new comfort is likely to attract more high-paying business passengers, the airline industry's most treasured customers.

It was no coincidence that American made the announcement in Washington, where Congress has been considering bills to force airlines to treat customers better.

More than 20 members of Congress got a sneak preview of the new seats at a special breakfast Thursday morning. The group included Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who had co-sponsored one of the bills and been one of the biggest critics of the airlines. A lanky 6 feet 4, Wyden understands the importance of legroom.

"He's pretty impressed" with the new seats, Carty said.

The seats are the most solid evidence that Congress has succeeded in forcing the airlines to improve service. The airlines have also vowed to provide better information to passengers about delays and cancellations.

Carty acknowledged that the seating plan was an effort to satisfy Congress and said his company and others need to keep their commitment to treat passengers better.

"To some degree, this is an industry that has lately been in denial," Carty said. "In an environment where many customers are questioning the value of air travel, we hope this effort tells loudly and clearly that American listens and American responds to its customers."

Other airlines have made limited efforts to add legroom _ United, for example, has created "Economy Plus" to provide additional space for business travelers _ but no one has done it on as grand a scale as American.

Thursday's announcement prompted an odd mix of responses from other airlines.

A US Airways spokesman declined to comment on the plan, but offered a complex accounting of his airline's space for passengers' legs and bottoms. Seats in US Airways' new Airbus planes are 1 inch wider than American's. However, the new US Airways seats will be spaced 33 inches apart, tighter than American's new spacing of 34-37 inches. That distance is measured from the place where a passenger's lower back touches the seat to the place where the knees would hit the seat in front.

Delta Air Lines said it might match the American plan.

"We are reviewing our options," said Delta spokeswoman Cindy Kurczewski. "Seating space is important to overall passenger satisfaction and we want to remain competitive in all areas of customer service."

Southwest Airlines, the nation's premier low-cost airline, said it was unlikely to increase seating because it would lead to higher fares.

"Our customers have been very happy" with the existing seating, said spokeswoman Christine Turneabe-Connelly.

Ultimately, most airlines are expected to adopt the plan, just as they have copied other American innovations such as computerized reservation systems, Super Saver fares and frequent flier programs.

It will take months before other airlines can catch up. American executives said it will be difficult for other carriers to quickly buy wiring for the new seats because American has already snapped it up.

Also, the changes could be more costly for airlines that have large numbers of planes with six seats in each row, such as the Boeing 737 and 757. With two rows removed, they will lose revenue from 12 seats in each plane.

By contrast, most of American's domestic fleet are planes that have five seats in each row, such as the McDonnell Douglas MD-80. For those planes, American will lose revenue for only 10 seats.

The new legroom is likely to be popular with passengers.

Wallace Hawkes, a Tampa executive whose frequent trips to Asia make him one of Delta's highest mileage customers, said coach seating "is so tight on most airplanes that it's miserable."

"It doesn't sound like much, but 1 or 2 inches is a big deal."

More legroom

American Airlines plans to remove two rows of coach seats in every plane to give more legroom to passengers.

Current standards

Legroom is the distance from where your lower back touches your seat to the seat in front of you. That is now 31 to 32 inches.

Future standards

Once the rows are removed and the seats redistributed, legroom will increase to 34 to 37 inches.Source: American Airlines, Associated Press