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American Airlines said Wednesday that it will overhaul the most expensive seats on its international fleet, and will drop its highest class of service on some planes.
Those front-of-the-plane seats attract the highest-paying passengers. They're also a sought-after upgrade for frequent fliers. Airlines have been focusing their spending on the premium seats as they compete for the passengers who fill them.
American didn't give a specific cost estimate for the overhaul, but said it will spend "several hundred million dollars per year in enhancements to the customer experience." At the same time, it's juggling its bankruptcy reorganization and asking a judge to let it throw out employee contracts so it can replace them with cheaper ones. It's also dealing with US Airways Group Inc.'s efforts to convince creditors to think about letting it merge with American.
Most of the seating changes American announced Wednesday don't begin until 2014.
All of American's planes have at least two cabins -- coach, and a front cabin called first class or business class, depending on the flight. Some of its international flights have a third cabin, called Flagship Suite, on its 777-200s. Some of those were added as recently as 2009, according to American's website.
On Wednesday American said it will return to having two cabins on those planes "to better match capacity and demand." American flew 47 of those aircraft as of the end of last year, out of 617 in its mainline fleet. It said it will install new lie-flat business class seats on those planes. The 777s are its biggest planes, and airlines have traditionally seen international first class as especially important for competing against overseas airlines.
American has been inconsistent in its approach to premium seats, said Matt Bennett, who publishes a travel newsletter called First Class Flyer. Several years ago the airline put in business-class seats that reclined to be nearly flat, just as European and Asian airlines were putting in fully-flat seats. "They have a track record of short-sightedness," he said.
American is getting 10 new 777-300ERs, and those planes will have three cabins. Those are set to begin arriving late this year, continuing through 2013. American is also keeping three cabins on its 767-200s, which it uses between New York's John F. Kennedy Airport and Los Angeles and San Francisco.
American, based in Fort Worth, Texas, also said it will overhaul up to half of its 58 Boeing 767-300ERs. They are mostly used on flights to Europe and South America, as well as some long-range U.S. flights. The overhauled planes will get 28 lie-flat business class seats. The new 777s and refurbished 767s will also have American's new "Main Cabin Extra" coach seats with more legroom. The airline plans to charge extra for those.
The 767-300s that aren't overhauled will be retired over time, American said.
Also, US Airways said on Wednesday that it is wrapping up an upgrade to business-class seats on its 16 Airbus A330s, which it uses for flights to Europe and to Tel Aviv, Israel. US Airways calls that front section of the plane "Envoy." Those seats recline flat and include a power outlet, along with other amenities.