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Bonus Rant: Cheap Seats (and a Ray of Hope)

Carol Sottili

I hate walking through first or business class on my way to the cheap seats, especially on long flights. The people sitting there swirling their mimosas always seem so smug. As I struggle into my middle economy seat and the guy in front slams his seat into my knees as the woman next to me struggles with her howling baby and the 300-pound fella on the other side happily oozes into my seat (and onto me), I just want to scream, "Why? Why can't I be one of the chosen few in the front of the plane?"

And then I close my eyes, plug in my iPod and keep repeating my Zen mantra thing about saving thousands of dollars for a few hours of inconvenience. Still, if I ever win the lottery, I'm never going to sit in the cheap seats again.

But a bright spot: Maybe we all will soon be able to afford better seats without breaking the bank. OK, there is still going to be bank-breaking required, but it is getting less financially painful.

Air France announced Monday that it's going to permanently reduce the price of its business-class seats. The new Business Class Leisure fare, which will be available year round, has to be booked 30 days in advance, and it will save about 50 percent off the airline's normal business-class fares. For example, a round-trip flight from Dulles to Barcelona will be $3,470 round trip, including taxes, and a round-trip flight to Paris will be $3,254. Still sounds like a lot of money, but when you consider that United's biz class seats are more than $7,300 round trip and that an economy seat to Paris in summer is running about $1,500, it doesn't sound half bad.

We've seen other airlines, such as British Airways, also reducing its business-class fares, especially to London. The move to cheaper good-seat fares started after several all-business-class airlines, such as Silverjet and Eos, started offering reasonably priced (about $2,400 round trip during high season) service from New York to London. Again, sounds high, but economy seats from Washington to London this summer are more than $1,000 (and if you want to purchase an economy seat that would be upgradeable to a business-class seat using miles, you'd pay $1,800 plus 60,000 miles).

So what do you think? Is it worth it to pay up for the better seats? If not, how do you handle it when you get stuck in economy on a long, full flight and the guy next to you hasn't bathed in a week or the gal next to you hasn't or has (fill in the blank)?

By Carol Sottili |  February 27, 2008; 7:15 AM ET  | Category:  Carol Sottili , Monday Rants , Tales from the Road
Previous: Insta-CoGo: Delwest, or Is it Northta? | Next: Baggage Check: US Airways Follows United With $25 Fee Per Extra Bag

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Does anyone know where the Italy hospitality truck will be today? www.italiantourism.com/

Posted by: Italy Bound | February 27, 2008 9:37 AM

Three words: United Economy Plus. Maybe it's not worth the extra cost for a short flight (I wouldn't get it for flights less than 3 hours), but on any long flight it is worth every penny. Coming back from Argentina last year, I paid an extra $100 or so for United Economy Plus at the airport check-in (when the tickets are already $1,000--what's an extra hundred?). What I got in return was another 5 inches of legroom, plus I was in an exit row, so there was even more legroom. While sitting in my seat, I could just barely stretch my legs out completely straight, and I'm 5'8" tall. It was amazing.

Sure, if I could afford business class, I'd sit there, but for now, the economy plus is where you'll find me.

Posted by: Leg room | February 27, 2008 9:54 AM

I couldn't agree more with Leg room. I always pay for Economy Plus on cross-country domestic flights (if I can't get a seat in First Class with a miles upgrade), but it really makes a huge difference on longer flights. Last year I flew coach from DC to Paris and paid just $70 for Economy Plus on the return trip -- and it was an entirely different experience.

Posted by: jane | February 27, 2008 11:18 AM

for me it's not so much the leg room as it is the fact that economy class airlines seats are really torture devices. For a couple of hours I can deal with it, but if I am flying to Asia or Europe it is really draining. And I can't sleep in a seated position so there is never any hope of sleeping the flight away.

Luckily I spend enough money that I have had enough FF miles to book business class seats on several trips including my trip to Asia last year. And I am using miles again for a "free" business class seat on ANA to Asia again this year.

This year I also just sprang for a $3200 "UpperClass" seat on Virgin to London for late August. This seat is basically what an airline like United sells as First class. Totally horizontal and it apparently has a seating surface on one side and flips over into a sleeping surface. All seats are aisle seats with no one sitting next to you. I can't wait to finally be able to actually sleep on an airplane! If I had more flexible dates I could have saved a further $500.

Once you taste the front of the plane it is very hard to go backwards. I guess some people get excited about the food and wine and all of that, but for me it's just about the more comfortable seat. I don't care that much about the food. The other nice thing is access to the airline lounges that usually have decent free food and quiet, comfortable environments in which to wait. The ANA lounge at NRT has super fast wired internet for free. Most at least have free wireless. Some even have showers and such if you need to freshen up on arrival. It's all just so much more civilized.

Posted by: Glenn | February 27, 2008 11:58 AM

I'm glad airlines offer a choice business class for those who want wide seats, food and extra service and coach class for those who want only the lowest price. I generally prefer to lowest price if I'm paying (and business class if a client is paying :) I'm sure the airlines are baffled that some people fly coach for the cheap fares and then check into a four star hotel. If I worked for an airline, I would try to figure out why so many people look for the lowest possible airfare when they wouldn't book to cheapest possible hotel. Somehow hotels get discount flyers to pay premium prices for lodging. Perhaps lowering the cost for business class will encourage some of the premium hotel class to also prefer premium hotel seats.

Posted by: Tom | February 27, 2008 12:01 PM

Southwest is gross. The people that fly these airlines regularly are the same people that buy fast food as their primary meals. In fact, nothing is more pleasent then flying cross country in a plane that smells like Mcdonalds since these people bring that food on the plane.

I agree Economy Plus is a great on United. And Jet Blue is nice alternative for short flights.

Posted by: AC | February 27, 2008 1:08 PM

Alas, in most cases Biz Class is several times the cost of Economy. On the other hand, air fares in the US are generally lower than those for equivalent distances in many other countries. Most people are willing to put up with cramped quarters (albeit with loud complaints) rather than paying more.

Posted by: Steve | February 27, 2008 2:24 PM

What gets my goat about this situation is that there are people who are willing to pay thousands of dollars for their cars, homes, jewelry, etc., and yet they are cheap as heck about how much they pay for their airfare. Also, you might want to consider who exactly is paying for those relatively high biz class fares and for whom: their employers for their senior execs. Lastly, when dealing with the situation about the awful smelling guy or the lady and her baby, I would request either a window or an aisle seat, park myself with a good book, and also do the crosswords in the airline mags. In summary, sit back, and enjoy the flight as best as you can, because you know that in a few hours you'll never see these seatmates again!

Posted by: ShepCWillner | February 27, 2008 2:42 PM

"In summary, sit back, and enjoy the flight as best as you can, because you know that in a few hours you'll never see these seatmates again!"

Although their bugs may stay with you for weeks.

Posted by: Terrils | February 27, 2008 4:06 PM

Whaaaat? Pay a month's salary for a business class seat? I am grateful I am a very small female who can curl up in her economy class seat. Those extra thousands of dollars? I'll send my kid to college or donate to my favorite causes.

Posted by: World traveling on the cheap | February 27, 2008 4:54 PM

AC--I'm perfectly fine flying Southwest without snotty elitist pricks like you anyway. I fly Southwest regularly and can say for sure that my diet is not composed of fast food, and I see no purpose in spending several weeks' salary simply for 6 inches of leg room (which honestly isn't that bad in the first place, and I'm 6'2") and a wider seat.

Posted by: Southwest Flier | February 27, 2008 6:15 PM

Sleeping on the plane does not work for me. Like many folks, I awake a little more congested than when I stay awake. So, to fight trouble with painful ears when landing, I stay awake, stay hydrated, use Sudafed, and swallow a lot.

Posted by: enjoy travel | February 27, 2008 6:19 PM

To Tom:

"If I worked for an airline, I would try to figure out why so many people look for the lowest possible airfare when they wouldn't book to cheapest possible hotel."

Perhaps because you can redeem miles and things at hotels far easier than on an airline.

My husband has miles with NW out the yin-yang, but when we went to purchase first-class tickets with his miles in September for a mid-week, mid-February flight to SF, we were not allowed to do so by NW.

Getting the hotel we wanted was a breeze - Hilton couldn't have been nicer or more accommodating, and we got a nice room with a fabulous view of downtown when we arrived. Not so, NW.

We weren't in a blackout date. We weren't flying during a peak time period or time of day. My husband had more than enough points. If we tried to book the seats normally, the cabin was wide open (and the seats were five times the price of coach class).

But NW insisted that no seats were available when we tried to redeem miles for tickets and absolutely wouldn't budge. (We think it's because they wanted to save them for upgrades or flat-out purchase price.)

We ended up booking coach (the point of the vacation was to use up some of the miles he had) and we were so frustrated. What's the point of being a frequent traveler and in the Elite program if the airline won't actually provide perks when you play by all the guidelines they set down?

Posted by: Chasmosaur | February 27, 2008 9:09 PM

I can take the cramped, hard seats in economy class, but sharing an aisle with a man or woman who buys their perfume or cologne by the 55-gallon barrel kills my appetite for flying.

Posted by: l0l101l0l | February 27, 2008 10:17 PM

Carol -- If you were boarding a domestic United flight, that wasn't a mimosa that the elite were swirling in their glasses. Not too long ago we were in United first (upgraded) and asked for mimosas to start off our vacation in style. Sorry, came the reply, United no longer carries Champagne on domestic flights. It's been downhill ever since . . .

Posted by: Spin | February 28, 2008 1:45 PM

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