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Add Delta to the short list of airlines that offer an optional economy cabin with extra legroom. Within the United States, Frontier, JetBlue, and United offer similar accommodations; overseas, you find it on KLM and some 777s operated by a few other lines. I call that type of accommodation "semi-premium" because it provides "up to four inches" of extra legroom but no relief from the usual narrow economy seats.
Delta's version, called "Economy Comfort," is available as of June 1 on "more than 160" planes it uses mainly for international flights: 747s, 757s, 767s, 777s, and A330s. When I checked a few flights today (late May), I found the option was fully operational on Delta's website.
In addition to extra legroom, the Economy Comfort seats provide a greater recline than ordinary economy seats, and travelers in this cabin also enjoy early boarding and complimentary alcoholic drinks. Additional charges over regular economy fares range from $80 to $160 each way, depending on the route, and you have to book an economy ticket before you get to see the price to upgrade your specific flight. Delta's prices are consistent with United's. As with United, Delta's high-ranking (diamond and platinum) frequent flyers and travelers on full-fare economy tickets get into this cabin at no extra cost, and lower-ranking frequent flyers (gold and silver) get in at discounted rates.
At this point, Delta has not yet decided when and how to incorporate economy comfort into its frequent flyer award schedule. But Delta says it will offer this option by the end of the year.
Unlike United, Delta is so far not adding extra-legroom seats on its domestic fleet of A320s, 737s, and MD90s. My guess is that if Delta likes the market response to overseas flights, it will add economy comfort to its domestic planes as well. Meanwhile, Delta occasionally uses international planes for a few domestic flights; Delta may offer economy comfort as an extra-cost option or those seats will go to some of the many frequent flyers who are eligible for upgrades rather than available first-class seats.
Delta's move increases pressure on American. So far, American does not offer either semi-premium economy, to match United and now Delta competitively; or true premium economy, to bring its product into line with partner lines British Airways, JAL, and Qantas or to match competitors Air France, Virgin Atlantic, and others. To a lesser extent, US Airways will also feel increased competitive pressure to go one way or another on its international services.
As long as Delta limits Economy Comfort to international flights, however, I suspect that smaller legacy airlines Alaska and Hawaiian can comfortably resist any changes. Still, Alaska should feel some competitive pressure from United, especially because Alaska's first-class cabins are so small that hardly any of its flyers, including high-ranking frequent flyers, have a good chance to escape the cattle car.
As a traveler, you, too, have to decide whether to go for any improved economy cabin:
- Semi-premium economy provides much needed legroom plus a few other amenities that vary by airline. And semi-premium economy generally costs a lot less than true premium economy, typically not exceeding $160 each way for a long-haul flight. Seat width, however, remains inadequate to accommodate mature American travelers comfortably on a full flight.
- True premium economy is a much better product, with even more legroom than semi-premium and significantly wider seats. But, on most lines, it costs at least double what you pay for regular economy—a value proposition that appeals more to business travelers than to ordinary consumers.
- You get the equivalent of Delta and United semi-premium economy seats at regular economy fares on JetBlue. And its front extra-fare cabin provides about six inches more legroom than other lines' semi-premium.
Any option that allows you some relief from the cattle car crowding of traditional economy is welcome. It's up to you whether that relief is worth the cost. But semi-premium economy is now available on Delta's overseas flights should you want it.