Cup holders and memory foam: This airline is making comfort a focus

The glamour days of plane travel may be long gone, but some airlines are putting a focus back on comfort. Alaska Airlines, which became the nation’s fifth-largest carrier after buying out Virgin America, is now unveiling a brand new look with special attention to how passengers experience flying from their seats.

The relaunch comes as several of the biggest airlines are also investing millions in their cabins, reports CBS News’ Kris Van Cleave.

Van Cleave took a flight with dozens of Alaska’s frequent fliers. The company is hoping to impress them with its fresh new cabin. The airline will invest tens of millions to address a huge challenge: melding Virgin America’s trendy vibe with the more traditional Alaska in a way that makes both sets of loyal customers happy.

“We just needed to evolve, evolve to something that’s a little more stylish, a little more modern,” said Alaska Airlines president Ben Minicucci. “We needed to have something that really resonated with passengers.”

The Virgin fleet is getting a fresh look outside, but to go from the old interior to the new one, it takes 45 people 18 days. Two years of work went into picking the right welcoming cabin colors. The mood lighting Virgin is known for gets a new blue hue, designed to calm and complement flyers’ circadian rhythm and cut down on jet lag.

They also upped the number of seats in first class and installed thinner seats that allow more seats in economy while keeping legroom about the same, meaning only first-class passengers lost space.

“We want to make sure people flying in the main cabin feel good about their experience,” Minicucci said.

BMW’s Designworks designed the new seats, which feature hand-cut memory foam to feel a bit like a luxury car.

“The seat is obviously taking cues from the automotive seat in its performance, in the cushioning, sort of the lumbar support,” said Molly Evans of BMW Designworks.

But it was the custom clip on the seatback for a tablet or phone in economy that got people talking. In premium economy, the tray table also features a cup holder.

“This is really a make or break move for Alaska it’s critical for their future success,” said airline analyst Henry Harteveldt.

He said people are motivated by the cabin experience. Fifteen percent of flyer satisfaction comes from the seat.

“If Alaska doesn’t do this right people aren’t going to choose the airline. They’ll fly with other airlines that either have cheaper fares, more flights or both,” Harteveldt said.

United is expanding first class on several aircraft, including adding it to 50-seat regional jets. Competitor JetBlue is in the midst of updating its fleet with bigger seatback TVs, new lighting and new seats aimed at giving people more room at knee level.

For former Virgin flyer Michael Thomas, Alaska’s cup holder sold him.

“I’m a whisky man … This new cup holder is going to hold my whisky secure and it’s going to be great,” Thomas said. “No spilling.”

It’s a small innovation that could have a big impact as Alaska tries to climb higher than ever.

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