Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

c.2013 New York Times News Service

As the director of data for a company called Routehappy, John Walton might be forgiven for putting the very happiest spin on a major airline trend, roping off parts of the coach cabins — or selling the better seats ad hoc — to accommodate those who want more comfort (or, to put it another way, less knee-crunching misery).

Routehappy.com, a useful website for finding the better coach seats, positively chirps with slogans like these: “Find the happiest flight experience for the cheapest price!” and “All flights are not created equal!” The company garnered a fair amount of attention recently with a report titled “Size matters: Finding the best seats in the sky.”

The gist of that report is in this sentence, “If you look hard enough, 13 percent of U.S. flights have roomier seats in regular economy, without paying extra.”

Really? I said to Walton. Really, he insisted. The Routehappy database that he tends actually does help travelers, those who are flexible in their airline choices, to find those elusive coach seats with 32 inches of legroom or more, without paying extra.

The top-ranked domestic airline for availability of these seats is, of course, Southwest, which doesn’t assign seats but does sell boarding priority for those who want the first crack at the most desirable ones. Southwest is followed by Alaska, JetBlue, US Airways and Virgin America, United and Hawaiian.

“The airlines are really keen on Routehappy, because we’re basically telling people when and where they can get a better flying experience,” he said. If you plan well, that can be had without paying extra, he added.

But as the TV hucksters say, “Supply is limited!” As any frequent flier knows, airlines have been busily adding extra fees on most aspects of flying, spurred by the spectacular revenue increases they have seen since most airlines started charging extra for checking bags on most coach tickets. Where that goes nobody knows, except I did feel a little chill recently when an airline reservation message gravely informed me that my carry-on laptop was a “complimentary” service.

Now, as to seat availability at the base coach fare, let me give you an example of just how limited that supply seems to be these days, from a booking I researched Monday morning on American Airlines, for a planned trip from Tucson, Ariz., to Fort Myers, Fla., departing Oct. 15 and returning Oct. 19.

The coach fare was $742 for a flight connecting through Dallas. Yet even two weeks in advance, there were no available assigned seats on any of the four legs of the round-trip trip, on 737 and MD80 aircraft each way. But I did have a choice, as the airlines love to say. If I didn’t wish to “continue without seats” as my reservation message said, I could choose to pay extra for a few middle-row seats available on each of the four separate flights ($27.99 and $31.99 extra, respectively, on the two outbound flights). To book a coach flight over two weeks away with assigned seats, the actual fare would have increased to $868.96, or $918.96 if I checked a bag.

But there’s more, as they say on TV: The reservation process did offer me a discount of $100 if I chose to sign up for an American Airlines AAdvantage credit card. That card has an annual fee of $95.

As the airlines have perfected what they call “capacity discipline” by reducing the number of seats flown, the truth is that many business travelers are choosing to pay the airline vig, I mean ancillary fees. Even corporate travel managers are now pretty much resigned to approving extra charges for seats that aren’t in the middle of the rows, back by the bathrooms.

Given those realities, the Routehappy report also has useful information about those “extra legroom” or “premium economy” seats airlines now sell in sections of the coach cabin specifically set aside as a separate class from steerage. About 9,000 of the roughly 22,000 daily domestic flights offer that option, and Delta leads the way with 3,397 of them, Routehappy says.

The premium-economy option is increasingly popular on international flights among business travelers, as a kind of middle ground between base coach and the far more expansive business class. Nearly half of the 1,800 international flights departing daily from the United States have the premium-economy option, Walton said. British Airways has by far the most such flights, followed by Virgin Atlantic, Routehappy says.

With the growing popularity of international premium-economy, “we are obviously drinking the Kool-Aid in the area of flight comfort,” Walton said.

He added, “Premium economy internationally is basically the same as or better than domestic first class in comfort, including lie-flat beds on some flights. I was back and forth to the U.K. four times this summer, and every time I went premium economy, because this summer premium-economy fares were about $1,600, compared to about $1,400 for regular economy. So it was a no-brainer.”

As the airlines will be very happy to tell you as they accept your money.