Monday, May 10, 2010

In The Middle

We like to sit in the middle. No, not the middle seat, not the middle of the airplane, but in the middle seating option between Sardine and Extravagant. That means some sort of Premium Economy – and in the U.S. that usually means just more legroom with few extra perks.

Some time ago we did an extensive round-up of Premium Economy on various airlines. Things have probably changed a bit since then as some carriers change their programs while others add the seating class (and a few have even eliminated it). But in general, the basics are still similar.

What we want to discuss today is “better” seating on domestic carriers.

UNITED has the most well-known product, Economy Plus. It basically offers some 4-5 inches of extra legroom. It’s available as an annual membership ($425) or on a flight-by-flight basis (we recently priced it on a SEA-ALB round trip and it was about $150). The other great under-the-radar option for E+ seating is with a fairly new United/Chase Visa credit card that offers the E+ annual option for a $275 annual fee on the card. That’s less than two transcon flights per year to make it worthwhile (and after only one flight with a companion, as E+ annual members can take one companion in E+ at no additional cost). (United and Continental recently announced a merger. There is wide speculation – and speculation only – that the Continental fleet will be re-configured with E+ seating options.)

FRONTIER is our new favorite. Their Stretch seats in the first four rows of the aircraft offer 4-5 inches of extended legroom, and they’re available for purchase at check-in or with certain of their fare classes. Our preference is actually the highest fare class (Classic Plus), which offers Stretch seats, priority boarding, two free checked bags, and... it’s FULLY refundable. On a recent reservation, Classic Plus was $211; Classic (basically 2 checked bags free and advance seat assignments) was $166; and Economy (no free bags, no advance seat assignment) was $136. Classic Plus seems like a deal. (Note that even with the two lower fare classes, you can purchase Stretch for $15-25 per segment.)

JETBLUE also seems like a standout, although we don’t have many opportunities to fly them. Their regular seats offer 2-3 inches more room (34” pitch) than most airlines’ regular economy seats; and Even More Legroom seats – with an additional 4 more inches – are available for as little as $10 per flight segment.

We’ve looked into VIRGIN AMERICA, but their extra-legroom Main Cabin Select seats seem quite overpriced. On paper, Virgin America’s regular economy seats offer one more inch of legroom than the domestic industry standard of 31” pitch. Seats on ALASKA are also mostly 32” pitch instead of 31. (We say “on paper” as that’s the official seat pitch, but a one-inch difference can be less or more noticeable depending on seat construction, width, etc. So although we like Virgin and Alaska, we don’t get too excited about either of those airlines based on their seats themselves.)

Finally, as SeatGuru points out, international Premium Economy can be as much as double regular Economy – and that may be worth it to many folks. But the site also notes that last-minute upgrades (when checking in on-line, or at the airport) can sometimes be quite affordable. (Not too long ago, we upgraded a British Airways DEN-LHR economy ticket to Premium Economy for about $180 at check-in. I don’t remember the original cost of that ticket, but today a BA economy ticket on that route is $700 while Premium Economy is $1150.) Several international carriers offer a well-respected Premium Economy product.

Try the middle some day. The increased comfort and reduced stress may be worth the slight additional cost.

[UPDATE 5/12/10: I just realized we left out SOUTHWEST. We simply don’t fly the airline: No assigned seats, flights that always seem to have an extra stop, and fares that we’ve never found competitive (in the example of the Frontier flights above, which totaled $439 RT fully refundable with all the perks, Southwest’s basic fare came in at $483). But in fairness, they do generally have seats with 32-33” pitch.]