American Airlines' decision to give coach passengers more legroom by removing two rows from its economy cabins is likely to prove popular with the traveling public. Ask anyone who travels frequently: The three to five inches of extra space will make a big difference.

American wasn't the first carrier to take action on the space front. United had a leg up on American last summer when it began reconfiguring coach cabins. Depending on the type of plane, anywhere from 36 to 89 of the seats in the front of United's coach cabins will have more room when the refit is completed this spring.

United calls this area Economy Plus. Strictly speaking, Economy Plus is a separate class, since it is restricted to passengers who pay full fare and Elite members of United's frequent flyer club. American is making the extra room available to all coach passengers.

Regardless of which carrier acted first, it appears that the airline passenger rights bills that have been circulating in Congress, including ASTA's, and the rash of consumer complaints about poor service that prompted them are drawing a response from the two biggest carriers. Odds are the other major carriers will follow suit in the coming months.

Time will tell if the airlines are really responding to legislative rumblings in Washington or merely taking the most expedient method of placating the passengers who complain the loudest.

After all, with aircraft capacity outpacing demand, many flights are not full these days anyway, so taking out a couple of rows of seats will not have a great impact on a carrier's bottom line.

The true test of the airlines' intentions will be in what they do next. If on-time performance improves and the incidence of lost baggage declines, maybe then the trade and the flying public can conclude that their message has been heard.

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