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Best Economy-Class Seats, Worst Airline Fee Scam

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Consumer Reports just announced the results of its latest airline survey, and guess what travelers hate the most: tight seats and high fares. As Chris Matthews asks his reporter panel, “Tell me something I don’t know.” Just about everybody knows that you hate those undersized economy seats and the laundry list of fees most airlines now charge. The challenge isn’t in identifying those miseries; it’s avoiding them.

For domestic flying, Consumer Reports got it right on the tight seats. JetBlue is the only domestic airline that can come even close to claiming its regular economy seats are “roomy.” That claim is a stretch, even for JetBlue, and “comfortable economy seat” is an oxymoron on any other line.

Moving down from JetBlue, seat room depends more on the specific airplane, not just the airline. According to SmarterTravel’s sister site, SeatGuru, standard economy legroom these days calls for a 31-inch “pitch,” the front-to-rear spacing between seat rows.

  • On mainline jet equipment, a few domestic airlines beat that tight standard by one inch, including Alaska, Southwest, and Virgin America on all planes and some seats on some American, Continental, Delta, Hawaiian, and US Airways planes.
  • Internationally, Air China, EVA, Korean, Malaysia, Royal Jordanian, and South African provide 33- or 34-inch pitch on most long-range planes; Asiana, Emirates, and Singapore provide 34-inch pitch on some planes.
  • JetBlue, Frontier, and United offer cabins with several inches of extra legroom for what many consider a reasonable surcharge. Other lines sell exit-row seats for extra charges as well.

At the other end of the scale, the real bad actors—with below-standard legroom—include AirTran, Allegiant, some Delta 757s, Spirit, USA 3000, and many European and Asian low-fare lines.

Cabin dimensions generally dictate the number of seats in each row and therefore the width of each seat. In general, standard seating on 777s (nine seats per row), 767s (seven seats per row), Airbus 320 series (six seats per row), Airbus 330-340s (eight seats per row), the new A380s, and Embraer 170-195 series planes are about an inch wider than seats on 737s, 747s, and 757s.

At this time, no line anywhere offers seats wider than the standard, and no domestic line offers below-standard seats. Some foreign lines that serve the United States, however, stuff an extra seat in each row, resulting in very tight seating:

  • Air France, Air New Zealand’s new model, Emirates, and KLM’s new 777s have 10 seats in each row instead of the usual nine.
  • A few Canadian and European low-fare lines, including Air Transat and XL Air, flying from the U.S. to Paris for the first time this year, stuff nine seats in each A330 row rather than the usual eight, resulting in extremely tight seating. Worst of all are the 767s on Fly Thomas Cook and Monarch, with eight seats per row rather than the usual seven—stay off of these cattle cars if you can.

Consumer Reports also got the fees right, citing no-fee two checked bags on Southwest and one on JetBlue; all other domestic lines charge. Internationally, all major transatlantic lines check one bag with no charge, as do all lines flying to Latin America beyond the close-in beach centers.

I have a problem with those who rail against these fees as “hidden.” Actually, airlines advise you pretty well up front before you buy. To me, the worst fees are those that Allegiant and Spirit charge to book online. The only way to avoid them is to buy your ticket at an airport counter, which for most of you would require an extra round-trip drive to the airport plus airport parking. Obviously, they don’t want you at the counter; they want your extra money. That fee is a scam.

All in all, I wouldn’t hold my breath until airlines provide roomier seats and fewer fees except in extra-fare premium services. As long as you, the traveling public, buy by price over other factors, you’ll get the smallest seats and highest fees airlines think they can give you.

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