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Airfare 401: Want a Comfortable Flight? Read This!

SmarterTravel

In previous columns, we’ve been examining airfares as if a coach/economy airline seat was a commodity—that means no real product differentiation, so price becomes the all important factor in choice of a flight. We know, of course, that although a majority of people behave that way, not everyone agrees.

  • Frequent flyer considerations steer some travelers to a less-than-optimal choice of airline and fare.
  • Others seek a flight offering adequate comfort, even if it costs a bit extra.

Those of you who place a high value on frequent flyer credit presumably know what you’re doing. So we’ll look here at the options for escaping the worst cattle car crowding (let’s simplify “coach/economy” to just “economy”).{{{SmarterBuddy|align=left}}}Seating—The Main Comfort Factor

According to anthropomorphic measurements, today’s economy seats are about three inches too narrow to accommodate American men in a full plane without requiring them to make some sort of adjustment—sitting partially sideways, leaning out into the aisle, and such. And before you start to lament overeating and obesity, note that the critical width measurement for men is at the shoulder, not the seat. And, whatever the reason, American men do, in fact, have wider shoulders than Europeans and Asians. To accommodate American men without interference with neighbors, seats should be around 22 inches (56 cm) wide at shoulder level. Although airlines don’t report shoulder width, the figure translates roughly to a seat cushion width of 20 inches the way airlines report it. By contrast, most economy seats today range from 17 to 18-and-a-half inches wide—none are wider and a few are even narrower.

Measurements of front-to-rear spacing can’t be developed as precisely as width measures, but the front-to-rear spacing of seat rows (“pitch”) is a reasonable surrogate. And a rough consensus indicates that 34-inch (86 cm) pitch is a minimum for reasonable comfort and space at the leg and the laptop-work levels. Only a very few lines meet that standard. Most range from 30 to 32 inches, with a few really bad actors at 28 and 29 inches.

The latest wrinkle is an economy seat with a rigid back and a seat cushion that slides forward to achieve something of a “recline” effect. It’s a good idea, in that when you recline you crunch your own knees rather than those of the person behind you. American just started to refit its entire 737 fleet with those seats. Of course, American took the opportunity cut the pitch by an inch and stuff extra seats in the plane. Several overseas lines are installing those seats as well, and you can look for more of them in coming years.

Given the inadequacy of today’s economy product, it’s no wonder that so many travelers are looking for relief from the overcrowding. Unfortunately, most of today’s options are grossly overpriced for what you get. Still, you can find some alternatives.

Superior Regular Economy

Although no major airlines offer adequately wide seats in economy, a few manage 34-inch seat pitch. According to sister site SeatGuru, the short list of airlines offering 34 inch pitch on all mainline-plane flights consists of JetBlue in the U.S., Porter in Canada, and Air China and Malaysia overseas. Several Asian lines provide 34-inch pitch throughout at least some of their planes and other lines have some seats at 34 inches. Quite a few lines provide a near-miss 33 inches, but no U.S. line even guarantees more than 32 inches. Check SeatGuru for particulars.

Semi-Premium Economy

The first extra-charge step up from basic economy is what I call “semi-premium” economy. That means improved legroom, but with standard seat width and standard cabin service:

  • JetBlue’s front-of-cabin seating gives 38-inch pitch—better than some domestic first class—for $10-$60 extra per flight.
  • United’s Economy Plus cabin area provides 34-inch pitch—better than its usual 31-inch, but just equal to JetBlue’s regular-fare seats. The cost varies but is in the same ballpark as JetBlue’s, or you can buy into it for a full year at $349. And elite frequent flyers get in automatically.
  • KLM advertises a “premium economy” option, but it’s really only semi-premium: extra legroom, but the same narrow seats, and the price premium is stiff. Ditto the “premium economy” on Air New Zealand‘s 777s.
  • Several lines sell extra-legroom exit-row seats at a premium, ranging from a modest charge to almost four times the basic economy fare on Virgin America (bundled with extra cabin services).

Real Premium Economy

Separate premium cabins featuring extra legroom, wider seats, and—usually—upgraded meal and beverage service are becoming increasingly important on long-haul intercontinental routes. The last time we checked earlier this year, Air New Zealand, ANA, BMI, British Airways, China Southern, EVA, Icelandair, JAL, Qantas, SAS, V Australia, and Virgin Atlantic offered such an option; since then, Air France has joined the group.

Although the product is quite comfortable, for the most part, the pricing is not:

  • The only lines charging less than double the lowest regular economy are EVA (about 25 percent higher) and Icelandair (about 50 percent extra for a relatively poor premium product).
  • Premium fares on the other lines ranged from around double the cheapest economy on Air France, JAL, and Virgin Atlantic to almost six times on Qantas.

Periodic promotions in either or both classes can alter those proportions considerably.

Each premium economy seat occupies about 40 percent more space than a regular economy seat, so charging double to six times as much doesn’t seem to make marketing sense. No wonder that the premium economy cabins on most lines are very small compared with the other classes. Equally clearly, the target for most lines’ premium economy obviously consists of business travelers from companies that don’t allow business class but do allow premium economy, not leisure travelers looking for a break from the cattle car. Sad.

Domestic First/Business Class

Most domestic airlines in North America provide either just one all-economy cabin or a main economy cabin and a front cabin called either business or first class. Front-cabin seats on single-aisle planes are arranged 2×2 and are extremely wide; legroom is anywhere from an underwhelming 34 inches to as much as 55 inches. Front cabin fares are typically anywhere from double to five times lowest economy fares. But as far as I can tell, these days hardly anybody actually pays those prices for front cabin seats. Instead, according to industry conventional wisdom, about 90% of those seats are occupied by elite frequent flyers with “free” upgrades or frequent flyers who use miles to upgrade economy tickets.

The only practical way most of you can ride up front is to use frequent flyer miles for front cabin seats—if you can find them:

  • You can upgrade most cheap economy tickets with mileage, but several lines—including American and United—you have to pay up to $100 cash each way in addition to the miles for an upgrade.
  • You can also get a seat for nothing but miles, although mileage requirements keep increasing.

Either way, the big airlines are extremely stingy with their front-cabin award seats, and, with upgrades, you may be able to do nothing better than get on a standby list. And be prepared to find that the only way you can score a seat is to use a double-mileage (or more) award for better availability.

International Business Class

International business class is the focus of a competition among airlines to see which one can outdo the others in terms of opulence. Seat pitch on big lines is, at worst, 42 inches, and it’s 55-60 inches on most lines and runs up to 76 inches on some. Seats provide a full recline, and increasingly they allow you to lie flat. Seats are wide enough—with wide armrests or tables between them—that width measurements don’t really matter. And cabin service is lavish—meals prepared by “gourmet” chefs, selected wine lists, and all the extras. Business class has become so luxurious that many lines have abandoned first class entirely.

List prices for international business class are ludicrous: As I write this, a mid-September New York-London round-trip is $7,346 plus tax on American, compared with $545 in economy. Fortunately, you don’t always have to pay as much. American is currently promoting a “special” business class fare of $2521 round-trip—no great bargain, but a lot better than list price.

Open Skies, the only airline currently offering nothing but business class on transatlantic flights, posts a lowest round-trip fare from Newark to Paris of $1780 plus tax for the less expensive of its two options—Biz Seat, at a generous 52-inch pitch and deluxe cabin service.

Even when airlines aren’t posting “special” business class fares, some consolidators can get prices better than the airlines’ postings. In an earlier report, we listed 15 agencies promoting discounted business class. Also some of the larger online agencies sell discounted tickets in all classes. Be careful, however, not to buy from a “coupon broker” that deals with frequent flyer awards, unless you really know the risks involved.

Dedicated hunters for bargains on business and first class should probably take a look at First Class Flyer, a monthly newsletter devoted to front-cabin deals. At $97 per year, it’s pricey for average travelers, but worth the cost if you travel several times a year.

Few Really Good Deals

The conclusion to all of this is that, except for either semi-premium economy on JetBlue and United’s Economy Plus or using your frequent flyer miles, avoiding the cattle car can either extremely expensive or extremely difficult to find. Unfortunately, you shouldn’t expect any big changes anytime soon: All the startup lines trying a “comfort at a reasonable price” business model have failed. As long as most of you, the traveling public, believe that finding the lowest fare is all that matters, you’re going to get what you’re willing to pay for: the rock-bottom comfort that comes with rock bottom prices.

Your Turn

How do you avoid the coach cattle cars? Do you have any tricks for getting comfortable in an airplane seat? Share your thoughts by submitting a comment below!

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