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6 Airline ‘Improvements’ — and What We Want Instead

Sometimes it feels like the airlines are out to make the flying experience worse at every turn. Our recent look at shrinking airline seats is one egregious example — but with a little digging we discovered quite a few things the airlines are doing to try to make our lives better instead of worse. Granted, these enhancements are a bit of a mixed bag: some promising changes alongside mere frills, some necessities posing as luxuries and some stuff that would be nice but isn’t essential.

Below are six improvements airlines are making to the air travel experience, followed by some thoughts on what we travelers really want.

Bigger Overhead Bins

The Improvement: Aircraft manufacturer Boeing will be expanding overhead bins on its 737 planes to hold 50 percent more bags.

Our Take: Yes, please! Most current aircraft simply do not have enough overhead space — common sense says every passenger should have a space for a compliant bag, end stop. Updating aircraft design to meet the changing nature of the cabin is a refreshingly sensible idea.

The only snag I could see with this is that folks may try to bring bigger and bigger bags, so airlines would need to make sure that the current size regulations are enforced; no one could really complain in that case.

But let’s be honest — this would not be nearly the problem it has become without the airlines cramming more rows and seats in every plane, as well as charging for checked bags. Stuffing more people into the cabin while giving them a reason to carry on more stuff inevitably has caused a space crunch above the seats: surprise! Adding more overhead space is arguably a necessary aircraft update and not really a beneficent favor to airline customers.

A Faster Boarding Procedure?

The Improvement: In hopes of speeding up its boarding procedures, Delta is testing a system in which employees load fliers’ carry-ons onto the plane for them.

Our Take: The idea that trained airline employees would use the overhead space in a more optimal way than a pack of random travelers is pretty compelling. Flight attendants are already doing this quite a bit, tucking and shifting bags that travelers have haphazardly (or passive-aggressively) loaded in the least efficient way. However, I am not sold on the idea.

First, one reason we carry on so much stuff is that we don’t trust the airlines and airports to collect, handle, track and return our belongings in the first place! What we carry on is usually the most valuable and essential stuff we have — so why would we voluntarily hand it over to strangers?

Second, the gate scene is already pandemonium, with airline agents charged with already formidable responsibilities — so now we’re going to make them baggage handlers as well?

Finally, many aircraft turnarounds are already tight, with folks pouring off planes while others are already standing in line to board. Adding a full-blown baggage check and load will have to be really well done to make the process any faster.

Big-Name Chefs Cooking for Hawaiian Airlines

The Improvement: Hawaiian Airlines has enlisted notable chefs to create menus for its passengers in first class.

Our Take: Meh. Slightly better microwaved food for the eight to 12 people in the front of the plane — whatever. There are far better things on which the airline could spend time, money, attention and brain power.

JetBlue’s In-Flight Classes

The Improvement: JetBlue is offering educational in-flight entertainment options such as lectures on marketing, science and music.

Our Take: In a column about what to do before a long flight, I recommended tricking out your tablet with things you really want to read, watch or do, so any improvement to the in-flight entertainment options available is welcome, if not overwhelming.

Learning about the dynamics of infectious diseases while trapped in a metal tube with a few hundred people might be a special form of masochism, and studying guitar in a 17-inch-wide seat sounds tricky, but at least you’ll know more when you get off the plane.

Food Upgrades in All Classes

The Improvement: United is upgrading meal options in economy class, as well as adding other enhancements.

Our Take: We like this effort from United. Yes, many of the improvements are on international long-haul flights, so they don’t affect travelers on domestic trips to visit family or take a short vacation — but food is more important on long-haul flights, and the fact that many of the improvements are available from one end of the plane to the other is a good move on United’s part.

Less Dry Air

The Improvement: Lufthansa has installed humidifiers in the first-class cabin of its A380 planes, inspiring the U.K.’s Daily Mail to describe it as “the first-class cabin where even the AIR is posh!”

Our Take: I know Lufthansa didn’t write this headline, but characterizing more breathable air as “posh” misses the mark by quite a bit. As I once wrote in a story about avoiding the airplane cold, low cabin humidity is the key reason many of us are more likely to pick up a bug when flying.

As with Boeing’s plan to increase overhead space, this seems simply like a necessary upgrade to aircraft in general. If airplanes are making us sick, and adding humidifiers would help correct that, by all means make it happen.

What We Really Want

Some of the above could offer significant improvements to the overall flying experience, while others offer cake when we need bread. So what do we really want? Here are four things that would really make a difference.

Recalibrate Change Fees

I say “recalibrate” because I don’t think airlines should have to get rid of these fees altogether — there is technical and labor overhead, after all — but as currently applied they are both disproportionate and unfair. Disproportionate in that the cost to the airline is really minimal — a phone call and a few keystrokes — and unfair in that an airline’s excusable mechanical failure is a passenger fee-incurring offense. That is, when your flight is late or canceled due to to mechanical difficulties, the carrier owes you nothing, but if you can’t make your flight for any reason — car failure, health issues, family emergencies, having a baby — you have to pay significant fees to change the flight.

Better Yet, Eliminate the “Difference in Fare” Penalty

When you change flights, you mostly are switching from one coach seat to another identical coach seat, but it can cost you hundreds or even thousands of dollars, which seems to me a bad way to treat people who are already your customers and whose money you already have in your bank account.

I realize that the fees are not only a source of revenue for the airlines, but also a deterrent to keep folks from changing flights all the time over and over. But the exorbitant change fee plus the often even more exorbitant “difference in fare” cost simply creates an undue financial burden on a traveler who hits a bump in the road of life. So keep a change fee, but spare us the double dip with the fare difference; I think the airlines would find folks dislike them a lot less with this change.

Show Seat Availability at Booking

When booking flights, many travelers currently find that sometimes they have seating information and sometimes they don’t. This information can make a huge difference in flight selection, especially when your travel times are flexible. For example, if you have a choice between two similar flights, and one was almost full with only middle seats left while another had a heap of good window and aisle seats, it would make for an easy decision. The in-flight experience is as important to many travelers as price and flight times, but it can be hard to get this information.

When traveling with family, this information may be the most important information in the overall mix; find a flight with three seats together with our kid in the middle, sold.

Straight Talk

Finally, a bit more straight talk when it comes to flight status would be most welcome. As adults, we expect to be entrusted with the facts when it comes to most things in life, and euphemisms and misinformation such as “just a few more minutes” and “we’re working on it” are infantilizing, unprofessional and counterproductive.

On a recent flight, I had a pilot that was extremely forthcoming with information about a mechanical issue, sharing information about the problem and how long it typically takes to fix, and letting us know that there was a small chance we would have to change planes. Everyone I spoke to on the plane said this was far better than the usual blather that results in passengers knowing next to nothing.

If you know, tell us; if you don’t know, tell us you don’t know. Thank you, fellow adult!

Do you have a suggestion for changes by the airlines that would make a big difference? Let us know in the comments!

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