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Coach Fliers Find Life's Luxuries More Elusive

Airlines: Not only is the percentage of undesirable seats dishearteningly high, but the fees for movie headsets and drinks are creeping up.


Life has never been simple for the millions of travelers who fold themselves into coach-class seats on U.S. airlines. But in large part, our quality of life aloft depends on two frequent sources of sorrow--legroom and carry-on storage--and two common sources of consolation--movies and booze.

Unfortunately, if you look too closely at the news concerning those four categories, it may be hard to muster much enthusiasm for your next flight.

* Legroom: Thanks to the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, we know more about "seats from hell" than the major airlines have ever told us. In the publication's October issue, the editors combed the floor plans of the wide-body jets used on most long flights--747s, 767s, 777s, L-1011s, DC-10s, MD-11s and Airbus A300s--and they counted middle seats, non-reclining seats and those seats in the rows closest to bathrooms. They found 77,000 undesirable seats--a daunting 41% of the coach-class seats on those jets.

Even worse, the article found that aside from middle seats, most airline reservation agents offer no warnings when issuing those bad locations. In fact, many airlines say their computer systems offer reservationists and travel agents no information about seats that don't recline (which can be 10% of coach seats), so travelers have no way of knowing of the discomfort that may await them.

It's wise to ask for an exit row and to scorn back-row seats, seats near bathrooms and, of course, middle seats. But because non-recliners are hard to foresee and airlines regularly reconfigure seats, avoiding Seats From Hell is tricky. Still, on a jet-by-jet basis, the Consumer Reports editors found that 747s had the largest number of undesirable seats--48% in coach, on average--and 767s and Airbus A-300s had the fewest, with averages of 30% and 37%, respectively.

* Carry-on bags: With airline occupancy increasing, more travelers are determined to avoid luggage-retrieval areas and more companies are selling luggage that just barely fits into overhead compartments. One flight attendants' union estimates that falling bags injure as many as 4,500 passengers yearly.

In July, the Federal Aviation Administration directed airlines to clarify their carry-on policies but stopped short of mandating uniform industry-wide standards. Since then, carriers have tightened their limitations, and in recent months, many airport gate operations have adopted "sizers" near the check-in desk or even Plexigas templates in front of X-ray machines.

The templates, which block passage of oversized objects, have been denounced by a luggage manufacturers' trade group. And the devices prompted a lawsuit by Continental Airlines, which alleges that a Delta template is causing security-area delays at San Diego International Airport.

But the rules are far from uniform. Some carriers have weight limits; some don't. Some count purses as carry-ons; some don't. And some give more space to passengers in premium-class seats. It's common to hear howls of unhappiness from fellow passengers being denied carry-on privileges. But airlines say their tighter limits have been generally well received. Bottom line: Travel lighter, and ask about carry-on restrictions when booking your ticket.

By the way, if you think industry uniformity should be the answer here, be careful what you wish for: U.S. Rep. William Lipinski (D-Ill.) last session proposed a bill limiting all travelers to just one piece of carry-on luggage. It went nowhere, but an aide says Lipinski plans to try it again next year, this time probably with limits of 45 linear inches (height plus length plus depth) and 40 pounds per bag.

* In-flight movies: Like alcohol, movies are free to travelers in business or first class, and they're free on most international flights. But if you're flying within the U.S. in coach class, you must pay for your headset. And lately, that price has been rising.

Trans World Airlines just announced that in January it will bump the price of a movie headset from $4 to $5. The increase, said a spokesman, is designed "to more closely align the fees we gather with the costs associated with that service."

Their language suggests that airlines aren't really making money on the service, just passing along the costs. But TWA and other major airlines decline to disclose their revenue from headsets, or from in-cabin drink service. The industry's leading trade group, the Air Transport Assn., gathers statistics on a variety of subjects but is mum on this topic.

It is clear, though, that TWA's move puts it in line with several larger competitors. United Airlines boosted its in-flight headset price from $4 to $5 in March. US Airways moved from $4 to $5 in May. Delta's headsets have cost $5 since October 1997. On American Airlines, headsets for feature movies have been priced at $5 since early 1996. (Continental, meanwhile, is so far holding firm at $4, and Southwest still doesn't charge for headsets or show movies.)

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