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Columns

Paying more? Pick your seat

By Steve Huettel
Published June 27, 2007


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Even in coach, every airline seat isn't the same.

That has posed a particular problem for discount airlines: How do you make sure business travelers who pay a bundle for a full-fare ticket don't end up fuming in a cramped middle seat?

It's an important question for low-fare airlines struggling to lure road warriors from traditional carriers armed with perks like first-class upgrades and airport clubs.

If business travelers can't expect at least a choice of seats, they likely won't give the discounters a try. Or as aviation consultant Robert Mann puts it, they won't go "outside the cocoon" of their regular carrier.

JetBlue Airways recently began holding aisle and window seats in the first nine rows of its jets for passengers buying full-fare tickets, usually purchased within a week of the flight.

The airline known for its marketing flair isn't promoting the change during a "soft launch" that began last spring, says spokesman Bryan Baldwin. "We want to allow customers paying the highest fares to end up with a seat that's not a middle seat, " he says.

AirTran Airways keeps prime seats open for full-fare customers by preventing discount ticket holders from reserving a seat until 24 hours before takeoff.

The airline recently added a twist: Passengers now can reserve seats when they buy cheap tickets by paying a fee: $5 per customer one-way for a standard seat and $15 for a roomy exit-row seat.

There have been a few gripes about nickel and diming customers, says spokesman Tad Hutcheson. But far more travelers like it, he says, especially families who don't want to risk sitting apart.

That leaves Southwest Airlines as the big question mark. The nation's biggest discounter has never had reserved seats, instead letting customers pick their own, first come, first served.

Southwest's computer system will be able to assign seats in 2009, and the airline has run tests on modifying or abandoning its "open seating" policy.

Chief executive Gary Kelly told an audience in Baltimore last week that Southwest is looking at options, adding, "you'll see some changes soon."

Southwest needs to increase revenues as costs rise. But executives don't want to risk the airline's low-fare brand by jacking up fares or adding annoying fees. Finding a way to bring in more high-paying business travelers by guaranteeing them choice seats might be just the ticket.

Road warriors typically like aisle seats toward the front of the cabin. They make for easier trips to the rest room and faster escapes once the plane lands.

Big travelers covet exit-row seats for the extra legroom. Passengers working on laptops prefer to sit behind a bulkhead with no one leaning a seat back into their space.

There are plenty of bad choices - and not just middle seats. People get stuck every day in seats that don't recline, seats with metal boxes on the floor that limit their legroom and seats next to busy lavatories.

The Web site Seatguru.com can help you pick out the good from the bad.

It has details about each seat on dozens of aircraft models flown by U.S. and international carriers, including the seat width and pitch a measure of legroom, entertainment systems and power ports.

Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3384.

Airport angst

Air travel was expected to have its share of hassles this summer, and has turned into a nightmare for many fliers. The number of flights canceled in the first 15 days of June was up a whopping 91 percent compared with the same period last year, and the number of flights that were excessively late - more than 45 minutes - jumped 61 percent, according to FlightStats.com. Overall, 70.7 percent of all U.S. flights arrived on time from June 1 through June 15, compared with 79 percent last year.

[Last modified June 26, 2007, 23:09:48]


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