My girlfriend and I just got back from Japan. Exciting country. Very nice people. They pride themselves on excellent service and won’t let you tip. I had to talk one hotel clerk off the ledge when I absently mentioned that the toilet in our room seemed to have a slightly sticky flush handle. If I tried pulling a stunt like that here in the U.S., I’d be stiffly informed that there are no other rooms available but someone would come look at the problem whenever they got around to it (read: not today) and I can expect to be served with a cease and desist order if I dare mention this issue on TripAdvisor. So the Japanese commitment to doing a terrific job simply for the sake of doing a terrific job is greatly appreciated.
And that concludes my impressions of Japan. Now let’s get to the part of the trip everyone wants to hear about.
For the outbound flight, we flew in United BusinessFirst on United’s Flight 837 from SFO to NRT, which is operated by a 747-400 with 2×2 forward and backward facing flat bed seating on the upper deck and an AVOD IFE system.
The service was okay, not terrific but not horrible — about what I’d expect from an American carrier in international business class. I had the tenderloin of beef and it was relatively palatable. The United hard product on these 747’s is good with an easy-to-use IFE system and an up-to-date movie selection. We were also in a bulkhead so we didn’t have anyone staring back at us from a rear-facing seat.
Most importantly, the fully flat bed seats are comfortable enough that my girlfriend was easily able to settle in and get several hours of sleep. Even I (as someone who doesn’t sleep much on flights) squeezed in an hour or two between “Anchorman 2” and “Pacific Rim.” (Note: do not doze off in the middle of “Pacific Rim” unless you want to experience the weirdest dreams of your life.)
On the way back, we were booked on Asiana Flights 101/202 from NRT to LAX via ICN. As we walked through Tokyo Narita Airport, I gulped and broke the bad news to my girlfriend…
“Ummm, so sweetie, on the way back, I think we’re in angle flat seats.”
“Yeah, I’m pretty sure they’re angle flat.”
“Well, they don’t go flat all the way. They’re angled a bit. Sorry.”
Her eyes welled up. She turned away, trying to hide her disappointment. There was an uncomfortable moment of silence during which I could feel her embarrassment building in having to travel for the next 12 hours with a man who couldn’t even use 90,000 US Airways miles to book a roundtrip to North Asia on a simple set of flat bed seats. The surrounding Japanese locals came over and started to console her, conveying their great shame in me and wondering how such an incompetent American could have possibly been admitted to their country. “You even had a chance to rebook with oneworld partners after the changeover!” they yelled accusingly at me.
OK, maybe none of that happened. Actually she burst out laughing. “Does it matter?”
Hmmmm. Does it matter, indeed? Do we really need fully flat bed seats? Is it worth all the trouble, effort, and cost to ensure we’re exclusively on flights with flat bed seats? Have we reached the point where we can’t be even slightly uncomfortable for a few hours?
We’re speaking the unspeakable today, folks. Are angled flat seats really that bad?
The Conventional Wisdom on the horrors of an angled seat
As someone with absolutely no engineering experience or know-how, I have no idea how one measures the specific angle on an angle flat seat. All I know is that it won’t go all the way 180 degrees flat. But apparently I’m not alone. According to The New York Times, airlines purposely use “arcane and often inconsistent measurement systems” when promoting their seats. There is no standard system for measuring seat width, angle or legroom, but in general the “lie-flat” seat (which does not actually lie flat and is what most folks are referring to when they say “angled flat”) can go back as far as 172 degrees.
USA Today has also written about what they claim are the horrors of angled-flat seating. “I used to be content with business-class recliners,” says one passenger in the article. “But the times have gotten me so spoiled… I cannot sleep on an overnight or long haul flight unless I am at 180 degrees.” Spoiled? I don’t think that’s fair. Who would call this person spoiled? I mean other than everyone sitting in economy on the same flight.
But everyone knows we can’t trust the “lamestream” media (ha ha, get it? Lamestream instead of mainstream. Clever, right? OK, maybe not.) They don’t represent the views of real people. Let’s go directly to reviews from real people who really sit in these real seats, which we can really find at flatseats.com. That’s a website that hosts airline-specific reviews of all sorts of business class and first class seats written by the actual people who use them.
I’m sure this is where we’ll find stories of the true horrors of angled-flat seating. Just look at some of the reviews of the business class seat for the Asiana Seoul-to-Los Angeles flight we took:
Seat was easy to adjust and offered a lot of comfortable positions to sit and relax.
Hmmm, well, that doesn’t sound too bad. Hang on, I’m sure the next one will be terrible…
The seats are very good for reading and relaxing. Good recline, good lighting, plenty of storage space.
OK, there’s gotta be an awful one in here somewhere. What about this?
The seat slopes flat at about 165 degrees, which allows some quality sleep but you will notice the slope.
Aha! See! You will notice the slope! I’m sure this particular reviewer had a horrible flight noticing the slope all the way home. He even says so in the final line of his review…
This is far better than the current US carriers to Asia, and I would recommend Asiana for flight to SE Asia.
Well, you have to read between the lines, but clearly the angled flat seat ruined his entire trip. Especially when you compare it to a typical review of United’s fully flat bed seat:
The United BusinessFirst seat is the worst lie-flat seat I’ve flown in. Other than the fact that it does convert to a completely flat, horizontal bed, there is nothing positive about it.
Okay, I think that’s a bit harsh. Perhaps we need to bring a bit of perspective to this debate. How about this review of a United economy seat?
I had to cross my legs in this seat otherwise my knees would have been crushed by the seat in front.
Yeah, that brings it home.
The Devil’s Advocate says there’s nothing wrong with angled flat seats.
I’ll admit I’ve done a bit of cherry picking on those reviews. There are in fact reviews on flatseats.com which note that angled flat seats made it more difficult to sleep. And airlines wouldn’t be spending millions of dollars and years of effort installing flat bed seats if premium customers weren’t demanding it. So yes, there is a difference.
But it’s also easy to get caught up in the hoopla on flat bed seats and think that anything less is going to be a nightmare. It isn’t. Yes, the best flat bed seat beats the best angled flat seat, but there’s plenty of options in between that are quite comfortable. Especially when you consider that most folks in this community aren’t even paying cash for these premium seats, it may be time to focus a bit more on the journey as a whole and less on the angle of the seat.
My girlfriend and I had a perfectly wonderful return flight on Asiana in our angle flat seats. The service was superb and we landed safely back home without incident. In the end, that’s all that matters. Right, honey?
“Well, it was a little hard to sleep. I kept sliding down the seat.”
Last Week’s Recap — The Giveaway Winner!
Last week on Devil’s Advocate we argued against racing to burn miles (see “Do We Always Have To Earn and Burn?”) and had a giveaway for a pair of United Club passes along with 4 inflight drink coupons generously donated by our Benevolent Overlord Scott. The question I posed was “what’s one big advantage cash has over points that we haven’t talked about yet on Devil’s Advocate?” There were a number of good answers which we will cover in future columns, but I had a particular answer in mind (which I told Scott before launching the contest so that all would be fair and I couldn’t play favorites).
I’m not saying this is the only possible answer, but the specific answer I was thinking about is that cash can earn more cash simply by sitting in the bank. Unfortunately, points will never earn more points by just sitting.
Some people will argue there are instances where points do become more valuable just by sitting, such as via an American Express Membership Rewards transfer bonus or a rare award chart rate decrease. Yes, but those aren’t the same thing as points generating more points. A change in available redemption levels is akin to the price of a soda going up or down — it doesn’t change the actual cash you have in the bank. A promotion run for bonus points isn’t any different than a bank offering a bonus for opening a new account — you’re getting extra cash for moving your money from one program to another.
But I’m talking specifically about interest. Money for just leaving your money where it is. Cash has it. Points don’t.
As it turns out, 5 commenters got the answer. IL, Cody, Marc, Dan, and some guy named Gary Leff. Hmmm, that last name rings a bell. Where do I know a Gary Leff? Wasn’t Gary Leff the 14-year old I played tennis against when I was 12 in the Harley Tennis Championships For 12-14 Year Olds? He beat me in straight sets in the finals and I cried for two days? No, wait, that was Larry Geff. Never mind. I’ll probably figure it out. Probably shouldn’t have told that story either. Doesn’t make me look like a well adjusted child, does it?
Anyway, I assigned the names to numbers 1 through 5 in the order the comments were submitted according to WordPress, and then had random.org draw a number…
It was #2, which equals Dan. Congrats, Dan! I’ve already e-mailed you and we’ll get your prize in the mail ASAP. And don’t fret, Gary. I’ll make it up to you by not saying a single nice thing about the TSA for the rest of the week.
Devil’s Advocate is a weekly series that deliberately argues a contrarian view on travel and loyalty programs. Sometimes the Devil’s Advocate truly believes in the counterargument. Other times he takes the opposing position just to see if the original argument holds water. But his main objective is to engage in friendly debate with the miles and points community to determine if today’s conventional wisdom is valid. You can suggest future topics by sending an email to email@example.com.