Newspaper article THE JOURNAL RECORD

Carriers Try to Make the In-Flight Experience More Comfortable

Newspaper article THE JOURNAL RECORD

Carriers Try to Make the In-Flight Experience More Comfortable

Article excerpt

NEW YORK -- The airline industry, stung by the terrorist attacks and a downturn in business travel, spent most of the past year trying to convince Americans that flying is safe and affordable. Now, as business slowly recovers, carriers are dangling small perks to reacquaint the public with the idea that travel can also be enjoyable.

JetBlue Airways is encouraging passengers to relax a little with placards in the back of seats that show how to do simple yoga postures without standing up. Continental Airlines is serving higher- quality food to coach passengers on trans-Atlantic flights. And American Airlines is spending millions of dollars on TV and print ads to ballyhoo several inches of legroom added throughout every plane.

"They're trying to get everybody in the mood again," Gloribel Rodriguez, 18 and a frequent flier, said on a recent morning at New York's La Guardia Airport. Rodriguez, who swayed back and forth in a rocking chair near a large window with views of incoming and outgoing planes, said it's only natural for airlines to pay more attention to passenger comfort after months of focusing almost exclusively on security.

"They know they need to satisfy the customer," said Rodriguez, who flies to Puerto Rico once a month to visit family. "If we're not happy, they have no money."

These minor service changes, while seen as a way for rivals to distinguish themselves from one another, do not overshadow the fact that carriers remain much more intensely focused on cutting costs. With passenger traffic down 12 percent in April compared with last year, security and insurance costs on the rise and profit margins thinned because of reduced airfares, major U.S. carriers have canceled meal service on short domestic routes, removed pillows and blankets from the cabin and shut down airport lounges.

Taken together, though, these recent announcements of extra amenities represent a subtle yet significant shift in marketing strategies, said Robert Mann, an airline consultant at R.W. Mann & Co. in Port Washington, N.Y.

"It's a return to marketing 101," said Mann. "The airlines are back to the product differentiation factors ... to take the edge off this perception that the airports should be avoided."

Houston-based Continental last week announced it would begin serving chicken breasts instead of chicken thighs on trans-Atlantic flights and that breakfast will be upgraded from a cold croissant to a warm bagel with cream cheese. The only catch behind these and other modest culinary improvements is that Continental will subsidize the changes by charging $4 for each alcoholic beverage served on trans-Atlantic flights, an amenity that used to be free.

Mann said Continental's version of a sin tax could backfire, though, if passengers don't actually believe the food tastes better. …

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