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United Brings Extra Legroom to Continental Planes

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United has decided to retain its Economy Plus seating system-wide and to reconfigure former Continental planes to include the extra-legroom seating. Travelers on both lines have been speculating about whether the merged line would expand it fleet-wise or drop it entirely, and United answered these speculations last week. I’d say it’s an overall gain: Travelers willing to pay for extra legroom can continue to enjoy it throughout United’s expanded fleet, and travelers who don’t want to pay extra will find the regular seats aren’t any worse than they were.

In case you aren’t familiar with Economy Plus, it’s an area in the front of the economy cabin where spacing of the seat rows provides an extra three to five inches of legroom. You can get into the roomier seats in several ways: Travelers on full-fare economy tickets and high-level frequent flyers get in without paying extra; other travelers can get in by buying a yearly membership or paying by the flight, either during the reservation process or at departure. {{{SmarterBuddy|align=left}}}

Economy Plus seating is what I call “semi-premium” economy: a bit of extra legroom, but in the same overly narrow seats as in regular economy. A few other lines offer similar semi-premium economy seating, including JetBlue and Frontier on domestic flights and KLM on transatlantic trips. Similarly, old Continental, Virgin America, and a few others designate exit-row or bulkhead seating as “premium” and offer it either free to full-fare travelers or at an extra charge to travelers on cheap tickets. Also, as I reported last week, Delta is adding similar seating on the planes it uses for long-haul international flights.

United’s decision apparently indicates that the former Continental top managers, who will really be in charge of the merged line, apparently decided to adopt the United system. Their decision was made in spite of any NIH potential obstacle, as well as the more pragmatic potential revenue loss from the removal of a row or two of seats necessitated to free up the legroom. Apparently, when those execs got a look at United’s books, they decided that Premium Economy was a winner—that the combination of added income and strengthened frequent flyer loyalty offset the loss of a few seats. United will start reconfiguring former Continental planes beginning in 2012, but full conversion will be a multi-year effort.

United’s move may put pressure on American and US Airways to consider matching and on Delta to extend its limited version to domestic flights. American may be a bit hesitant because of the failure of its “more room in coach” program a few years back, but today’s premium economy is different: Travelers who sit in the roomier seats pay extra, and the same old “no pay, no legroom” policy prevails in most of the rear cabin.

Overall, travelers come out ahead whenever they have a greater choice among airline product offerings, provided the offerings are available at reasonable prices. As far as I can tell, premium economy on JetBlue and United pass that test. Although seats remain uncomfortably narrow, the extra legroom does improve overall comfort, and the price—yearly or per flight—seems reasonable.

On the other hand, true premium economy—wider seats as well as extra legroom—is not available on any domestic flights within the United States or Canada. And overseas, where several lines do offer it, premium economy generally does not pass the “reasonable extra price” test. Instead, as I noted when Air France announced its version, you get 40 percent more room but for a 100 percent fare premium. That’s the same lousy value proposition you find on most premium economy options; the best true premium economy deal I found was on EVA flights from the United States and Canada to Taipei.

I see no evidence that any domestic line is at all interested in true premium economy, nor any evidence that most international lines are interested in pricing it at reasonable levels. For the foreseeable future, then, semi-premium economy looks to be a typical traveler’s only realistic means of mitigating the worst of the cattle car.

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