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Frontier Upgrades Mean Downgrades for Some

Based on a tip from a fellow travel blogger, The Cranky Flier, I found the following tucked away in an obscure corner of Frontier Airlines’ website: “Beginning November 3, 2009, STRETCH seating will be available on four (4) E190 aircraft with expanding availability as we reconfigure our Airbus fleet.”

“Stretch” is Frontier’s name for its new premium coach seating—the first four rows of seats with an extra five inches of legroom. Over the next three months, the airline will reconfigure its entire fleet to include Stretch seats on every plane.

Stretch will be a no-extra-cost benefit when traveling on a more expensive Classic Plus ticket. And Summit-level members of Frontier’s EarlyReturns program can upgrade to Stretch within 24 hours of their departure times.

But for the average traveler flying on a discounted leisure fare, the extra legroom comes at a price: $25 per segment.

Stretch is obviously Frontier’s competitive response to a similar offering, Economy Plus, from its principal rival, United.

Normally, such a new product rollout would be the occasion for a flurry of news releases and a steady stream of splashy ads. Why is Frontier not promoting this?

Two thoughts spring to mind. The first is that Frontier is downplaying the new seating to avoid provoking a counter-response from United. Don’t rouse the sleeping tiger.

The other explanation is that Frontier doesn’t want to call attention to the negative impact of the fleet reconfiguration.

Consider the following statement on Frontier’s Facebook page: “We are not removing seats when we reconfigure our planes for STRETCH. The majority of seats will have a 31 inch seat pitch, although Non-STRETCH seats will range between 30 and 32 inches in pitch.”

Since the reconfiguration is a zero sum game, any legroom added to one row of seats must be subtracted from other rows. And that means that many more flyers will be negatively affected by the change than will benefit from it.

Personally, I’d be happy to pay an extra $25 for the added comfort afforded by a few more inches of legroom. I’m sure other travelers feel the same. Especially on longer flights, a little more space makes a big difference.

But I wonder how Stretch customers would feel if they knew their comfort was obtained at the expense of others’.

Frontier needn’t have made this a win-lose proposition. Removing just one row—six seats—would free up more than enough cabin space for the Stretch section, without squeezing the remaining rows closer together.

Nevertheless, Frontier made a calculated decision to sacrifice the needs of the many in favor of the comfort of the few. Which may explain why the Stretch launch hasn’t featured the chest-thumping and high-fiving typical of such product introductions. Downgrading Peter to upgrade Paul? I’d be embarrassed, too.

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