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The largest airline in South America has just unveiled the first retrofitted aircraft in a transformation of more than 200 jets across its fleet.

LATAM, the multinational carrier with subsidiaries in several nations, officially unveiled on Thursday in Lima, Peru, its first Boeing 767 with a new business class and a refreshed economy cabin. The $400 million retrofitting project will take place over the next two years; more than two thirds of the fleet will be renovated.

US-based flyers will be able to experience the new seats on routes out of Los Angeles and Miami to South American destinations served by LATAM; the first retrofitted airplane also flies to several other South American and European destinations.

The 767-300ER, registered CC-CXC, officially operated by LATAM Chile but based in Peru, was modified over four months in Abu Dhabi.

A New Business-Class Seat

The most important element of the retrofit is an upgraded business-class cabin in a 1-2-1 layout allowing aisle access to all seats, in place of the older 2-2-2 configuration.

Along with LATAM Peru’s 767s, Boeing 777s from its Brazilian operation will begin to be retrofitted this year. New Airbus A350-1000s and Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners will come equipped with the new seats. Unfortunately, recently delivered A350s and Dreamliners will not be updated for the time being, since they received the latest round of interiors from 2014.

LATAM is installing a customized version of  the Thompson Vantage seat, also found on Qantas’ 787 and Delta’s retrofitted 777s and A350s (although Delta’s version features a door).

LATAM was able to fit four seats across on the 767 in a 1-2-1 staggered configuration — giving all 20 seats in the cabin direct access to the aisle. It’s a big step up from the current 2-2-2 layout throughout the long-haul fleet, which forced window-seat flyers to hop over their seatmate if they wanted to get up. (777s with LATAM Brazil even have a 2-3-2 business class.)

Because of the staggered configuration, some seats will be flush against the window and two rows of middle seats will be in “honeymoon” style, with a non-adjustable divider in between. These are the seats couples will likely want to pick. The 777s and 787s will have moving dividers between middle seats.

All of LATAM’s units will be receiving the new interiors except for LATAM Argentina. A third of the fleet that is not being retrofitted because aircraft were either recently delivered and still have relatively new interiors, or are nearing end of life, meaning an expensive overhaul wouldn’t make business sense.

LATAM is the launch customer of this customized version of the Thompson seat — it plans on installing the slightly larger Vantage XL seat on the 787s and 777s since those aircraft have wider cabins.

From granite touches to adjustable lighting, the new seat felt, during a brief test in Lima, like it belonged among the better biz-class seats out there.

The soft product will be improved sometime in the middle of this year. Mattress pads and a larger pillow will be introduced on all routes and LATAM will be changing the meal service to provide a lighter dinner to allow for better sleep, while breakfast will be heartier.

Sender said the airline prioritized three things when picking the new seat: more room, privacy and opportunity to rest. “Over 90 percent of our passengers in business class fly alone, so they do value privacy,” Sender said.

The Economy Cabin

The economy cabin will also be refreshed with a new design and padding. Economy customers will find seats in a 2-3-2 layout with 31 to 32 inches of pitch.

The airline also offers a Premium Economy-style product labeled LATAM+, which offers 35” of pitch and foot rests. The 767s will come outfitted with 39 of these roomier seats, which also offer priority boarding and dedicated overhead bin space. The seats are not in a separate cabin with different service, and can be had for $50 to $100 more than regular coach class.

One of the biggest improvements is the new Panasonic IFE systems LATAM has installed in economy. The screen is significantly larger and features a much higher resolution over previous models. During a test flight, it was one of the most responsive IFE units I’ve ever interacted with, responding to every command without any lag or confusion.

João de Moraes Chaves Neto, LATAM Senior Manager of IFE and Connectivity, said the IFE in economy and business will feature 130 movies and 300 TV episodes, with 20-30 percent of the content updated every month.

LATAM does lag behind many competitors when it comes to in-flight Wi-Fi. Right now, only 27 narrowbody aircraft based in Brazil have Internet connectivity. The next step will be to bring Wi-Fi to LATAM fleets in Spanish-speaking countries in 2020, but the airline still has no date for when  the Internet will come to its widebody jets, said Chaves Neto. This is frustrating for business travelers who rely on connectivity during long-haul flights.

Use Miles to Fly LATAM’s New Product

Because LATAM is a Oneworld carrier, flyers can redeem a range of different points or miles.  Two of the most common currencies to redeem for flights on LATAM are American Airlines AAdvantage miles and British Airways Avios.

Sender told TPG that you’ll still be able to use miles to book the new business-class product, unlike on other airlines that block award inventory for newer premium cabins. You’ll be paying 20,000 miles for a one-way economy flight from the United States to visit northern countries in South America like Peru and Colombia. Flying further south will cost you more — you’ll have to shell out 30,000 miles to visit countries like Brazil, Chile and Argentina.

Business class is considerably higher, but there still are a few sweet spots buried in the American award chart. You’ll only have to pay 30,000 miles for a one-way flight in business class from the US to Northern South America —  but that could still land you in one of these new business class seats, even on true long-haul flights like New York JFK to Lima.

Flying to Argentina or Brazil will cost 57,500 miles each way in business.

Since the British Airways award chart is distance-based, prices will vary depending on the length of each route — although there definitely can be some good redemptions with BA. A flight from Los Angeles to Lima on the retrofitted 767 would run 25,000 Avios in coach and 62,500/75,000 in business.

One of the better parts of British Airways is that you can instantly transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards and American Express Membership Rewards to Avios at a 1:1 ratio. Cathay Pacific’s Asia Miles can be an option too (transferable from Amex and Citi ThankYou)

A Special Debut Flight

Even though LATAM’s been flying this new aircraft in commercial service since the beginning of the month, Thursday was the formal debut, during a two hour, 40 minute media flight.

CC-CXC wasn’t bound for any exotic destination; the boarding pass read “Lima to Lima.”

Justin Siegel, LATAM’s Director of Fleet Projects, said the airline retrofits its fleet at three different facilities across the world, with locations in Chile, Brazil and Abu Dhabi. Retrofits are usually combined with scheduled heavy maintenance, so aircraft are grounded for the least amount of time.

For the official debut of its new interiors, LATAM trotted out a famous Peruvian singer, Susan Ochoa, who appeared midflight, walking down the aisle towards the middle of the cabin.

Ochoa belted out a few tunes, but only one I was familiar with: Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” remixed salsa-style with Spanish lyrics.

Our 767 took a unique route, with the flight path outlining an airplane.

While the refresh of the widebody fleet is more exciting, LATAM also plans to retrofit its fleet of more than 150 narrowbody Airbus aircraft. A320s and A321s will receive a higher-density configuration featuring standard economy as well as an Economy Plus-style seat with more legroom. The airline is going the way of many US carriers; as well as installing more seats, it also opted not to install seatback IFE screens, instead providing content straight to passengers phones and tablets via Wi-Fi.

LATAM VP of Customers Claudia Sender said the airline will be updating aircraft at the rate of about two widebodies and seven single-aisle aircraft every month.

All images by the author.

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