Flying Sybaritic Skies

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At 6 ft. 3 in. and 225 lbs., Ron Galonsky craves the kind of space that airlines rarely provide outside first class--which his company won't let him fly on business trips. But last week, after a tip from a pal, the Virginia hospital administrator found himself winging to Los Angeles stretched out on a leather chair almost the size of a La-Z-Boy recliner and channel-surfing on his satellite TV. "I've never flown first class," Galonsky says, "but this is what it must be like."

That is exactly how tiny Legend Airlines wants long-suffering refugees from major U.S. carriers to feel. Four turbulent years in the making, the four-plane upstart took off from its home base in Dallas last month with service to Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Washington. Its coveted clientele: business travelers who habitually pay last-minute fares on major airlines and are thus the industry's most profitable customers.

Apart from answering the question of whether more legroom really can make people happy, Legend will plumb a major mystery of the booming U.S. economy: In an age when Americans are demanding high-end luxury alternatives in every market from mountain bikes to hotel bathrooms, why can't they escape steerage when they fly? Must every ticket purchased be low-end and high-hassle?

Legend seeks to reverse that dismal trend with re-configured DC-9s equipped with 56 plush, rust-colored seats that are set two abreast and boast a king-size 46 in. between rows. The industry average is 32 in. for coach and about 38 in. for first class, one reason Legend trumpets itself as providing first-class comfort at coach fares. Why 56 seats? That's the limit for long-haul carriers flying out of Dallas' Love Field, under a 1979 federal law intended to protect the sprawling Dallas/Fort Worth airport, which just happens to be American Airlines' home base.

Legend, which sets its prices to match those of American's coach tickets, offers additional perks that include gourmet cuisine, power outlets for laptop computers, and flight attendants trained by the company that schools employees of the Ritz hotel chain. Says Legend chief executive Allan McArtor, 57, a silver-haired former Vietnam fighter jock and past head of the Federal Aviation Administration: "Air travel today is an endurance test."

The luxury airline has helped shake up an industry whose standard service--or lack thereof--is regarded by most flyers as scarcely more pleasant than root-canal work. To counter that image, American Airlines plans to yank enough seats from all of its domestic fleet by the end of the year to allow coach passengers up to an extra 4 in. of legroom. United offers a similar program in its first 10 rows but only for those holding full-price economy tickets or for premier frequent flyers.

Before it could take to the air, Legend had to outmaneuver American on the ground. In the past four years, American has sued Legend--along with the city of Dallas and the Federal Government--to keep the new airline from using Love Field. While Legend has won every case so far, the issue may yet end up in the Supreme Court. American has poured money into anti-Legend lobbying and launched a series of attack ads asserting that Legend flights from Love would sap the economic vitality of Dallas/Fort Worth Airport.

The campaign to stop Legend came even as American faced charges by the Department of Justice for antitrust violations against three other start-up airlines. Now American is battling Legend on the fledgling's home turf. Beginning this week, American plans to offer its own upscale flights from Love with 56 spacious seats. "We will provide a competitive product from Love field," says an American spokesman.

American is fighting little Legend so hard because business travelers are the lifeblood of most airlines. Though these full-fare passengers--"road warriors," in air-travel lingo--make up just 10% of the typical carrier's customers, they account for nearly half its revenue. So adding or losing a few business types per flight can mean the difference between a profit and a loss--or, in Legend's case, between a new airline that thrives and one that does not. That's a daunting prospect in an industry that has seen only one airline, America West, survive out of the 58 that got off the ground between 1978 and 1990.

McArtor plans to keep Legend aloft by following an adroit business strategy. The carrier uses nonunion labor and flies just one type of jetliner over a few choice routes. That way it can generate 27[cents] of revenue for every seat-mile it flies, compared with about 14[cents] for cost-laden major airlines--an advantage that should allow Legend to break even on flights that are little more than half full.

Some experts welcome Legend's full-fare approach as an overdue sign of good sense. "Economic history shows that an airline based solely on lower fares does not work," says John Tschohl, who follows the industry for Service Quality Institute, which tracks customer-service trends. "Customer service is the only strategic marketing tool a carrier can use to pull customers away from an established airline." Business traveler Galonsky would readily agree with that. "I'll be going cross-country a lot in the near future," he says. And when he does, he adds, "I will be flying Legend again."