If you don't want to pay the exorbitant price for a first-class ticket, your only chance to avoid the bone-crunching crowding of the airlines' coach/economy cabins is to wangle a coach seat with extra legroom. Rather than dole out those choice seats first come, first served, more and more airlines have taken to selling access to them.
Typically, you find extra legroom in two sorts of seats: in "exit rows," opposite emergency exits, and "bulkhead rows" at the front of a cabin section with no other seats in front of you. The extra space can be as much as seven or eight inches, but it is often less, and often the real benefit of bulkhead seats is that there's nobody in front of you to lean back into your face. In either case, even minimal extra room is welcome in a cattle car cabin, especially if—like me—you aren't quite as spry as when you started flying.
Continental is the latest convert to selling extra-room exit row and bulkhead seats. It didn't announce prices, instead saying the price would depend on the route, market conditions, and, of course, ticket price and frequent flyer status.
Other lines have been selling those seats for some time. The following charges apply to ordinary mortals flying on cheap tickets; elite frequent flyers and travelers on high-priced tickets can usually access these seats without paying extra.
- AirTran charges extra for extra-legroom "priority" seating—$20 for a one-way trip from Atlanta to Los Angeles when I checked. Because AirTran charges $6 to reserve any seat, the extra $14 seems like a reasonable amount. Charges may vary depending on schedules.
- Frontier is installing several rows of extra-legroom seats in its A319s and E190s, which you can buy and reserve starting when you check in, as early as 24 hours before departure, for $25 per flight segment. The price is reasonable.
- JetBlue has installed several rows of extra-legroom seats in its A320s and one row of its E190s, which you can buy and reserve at the time of original booking. The price ranges from $10 on short trips to $40 on transcontinental flights—a good deal.
- Spirit charges extra for all advance seat assignments: $7 for a middle, $12 for an aisle or window, and $15 for an exit row, with the exit row easily worth the modest differential.
- Sun Country charges $8 for any advance seat assignment prior to 24-hour check-in period, after which the charge is dropped. No brainer, but very few seats.
- United has installed extra-legroom "Economy Plus" in all mainline aircraft. You can buy eligibility by the trip or by the year, but actual seat assignments are made at departure, subject to availability, and you may not actually get into the "Plus" section—a feature that severely degrades the attractiveness of the deal.
- US Airways charges a fee for several rows of "choice" seats, based on being the front of the cabin rather than extra legroom. I can't see this at all.
- Virgin America calls its exit-row seats "premium economy," and charges a fortune for the extra legroom plus a bunch of other less valuable features. It's a bummer.
Alaska, American, Delta, and Hawaiian don't mention charges for advance exit-row seating on their websites. Presumably, they control access to extra-room seats by blocking availability for low-level frequent flyers booking on cheap tickets.
Unfortunately, non-elite frequent flyers on cheap tickets can actually guarantee themselves an escape from the cattle car on AirTran, JetBlue, Spirit, and Sun Country. On the others, access—even with payment—is "subject to availability" and subject to a frequent-flyer lottery.
Quite a few lines based outside the United States also charge extra for exit-row and bulkhead seats, with charges that can run as high as $100 for a transatlantic flight. As far as I can tell, with most of those lines, you can reserve and buy as soon as you book.
Keep in mind that these extra-legroom seats are still as shoulder-rubbing narrow as other coach seats. And no domestic line offers true premium economy with wider seats. Sad.
Have you ever purchased extra legroom and did you think it was worth the additional cost? Share your thoughts, experiences, and advice by submitting a comment below!