ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
Which sounds better: Being stuck on Mars or being stuck in coach on a long commercial plane flight? Admit it. You had to think about it at least for a second.
Well, the airlines know that they have made flying a drag, and some are rolling out new cabins in an attempt to make flights more comfortable.
NPR's Wade Goodwyn recently got a preview of a new American Airlines interior, and Wade sent us this report.
WADE GOODWYN: Nine 737s stand nose to tail at the Boeing factory in Renton, Washington outside Seattle. If you think the glory days of American manufacturing are but a memory, consider this: It takes 10,000 mechanics and engineers 11 days to build a new 737, start to finish.
Unidentified Woman #1: It's lifted with a crane into the position we can see here, where the wings are installed with what we call a laser alignment tool, and it takes pretty much all day to get the wings on exactly as they want it.
GOODWYN: Hey, take all the time you need. The jets come with two interiors, regular, or for $180,000 extra, the Boeing Sky Interior.
Kent Craver is a psychologist and the regional director of Customer Satisfaction for Boeing. Craver says that until now, engineers and decorators approached airplane interiors like they were inside a room, a long, tubular, claustrophobic room.
KENT CRAVER: Make it comfy, cozy, cave-like.
GOODWYN: Craver says that was the wrong approach. Instead of trying to decorate a florescent tube like it was some perverse living room, with LED lighting and softer, rounder walls, they made the cabin a canvas like a planetarium. So on an overnight flight, to wake passengers in the morning, instead of flipping on the florescent lights, the cabin can begin a soft dark orange, slowly warm to yellow then a bright light blue. At night, the cabin can mimic the dark blues and purples of dusk. Instead of soul crushing, it could be nicer.
CRAVER: We're using the lighting as part of the architectural design. It's creating a scene.
GOODWYN: An important part of the new interior is the luggage bins. Instead of the traditional shelf bins with doors that close from above, these pivot bins partially retract into the ceiling. A passenger in the aisle seat is able to stand straight up, not lean sidewise into the aisle. These bins have hydraulic assist to help them close, and they're bigger, holding four suitcases instead of three, 48 more bags total than standard bins.
CRAVER: The bins and ceiling in those sections are the same height as they are on the airplane today. We've simply redesigned the way those pieces interact.
GOODWYN: Boeing Field is where customers take delivery of their airplanes. Next to the three-dozen people milling around American Airline's gleaming silver 737, about 30 Chinese dressed to the nine's are right next door excitedly snapping pictures of Hainan Airlines' beautiful white 737-800. There's a lot of laughing going on. Picking up an airplane is fun. They all have that new airplane smell.
Captain Jim Kaiser sticks his head in the door.
JIM KAISER: Who's got the key to the airplane?
Unidentified Woman #2: I.
GOODWYN: A couple of speeches, some photographs...
KAISER: And we'll cut the ribbon.
(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE AND CHEERING)
Unidentified Woman #3: Welcome aboard. Good morning.
Unidentified Woman #4: Good morning.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GOODWYN: And they're off to DFW, LED interior lights bathing the cabin in blue and white.
Just how big a deal this new interior will be to jaded frequent flyers is unknown. Waiting for a taxi outside Terminal C at Dallas/Fort Worth International, Seth Jenson has heard all about the new interior but hasn't seen it yet. Jenson is a restaurant consultant who flies American all the time.
SETH JENSON: I like the idea that there's more overhead space. I'm 6'4", and so you're constantly ducking and weaving through as you're boarding.
GOODWYN: But Jenson also flies Southwest Airlines a lot, too, and he says they have a better level of customer service. He's all for American's new 737s, but...
JENSON: It just seems that American employees are, whether it's your gate personnel or your ticket takers, it just seems like they're stretching their employees a little bit thinner to make their bottom line. And I recognize we need to invest in new planes, but I also know that, you know, it's still a service-based industry.
GOODWYN: Boeing says that 80 percent of their new 737 orders have asked for the new Boeing Sky Interior. American Airlines has 53 more coming.
Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas.