WestJet and JetBlue See the Value of the Upsell; Southwest Doesn’t

JetBlue and WestJet both had separate announcements last week around the same basic idea. The airlines are cutting legroom in the back of the bus in order to create or expand a section with more legroom up front. This is an interesting contrast to Southwest, which apparently doesn’t see the value in a differentiated “Economy Plus”-style product. I’m with JetBlue and WestJet on this.

Same Total Space, More Revenue

JetBlue announced that it would double the number of seats with Even More Space on the Embraer 190 fleet from 8 to 16. To add those extra inches, it either has to get rid of some seats or it has to shrink legroom elsewhere. Looking at the seat maps, it appears JetBlue is going the latter route. It will still have 100 seats on the airplane but at least some of the regular coach seats are bound to drop from the usual 33 inches of pitch.

WestJet said it would introduce its first premium economy product on its whole fleet. As part of this new offering, WestJet will “standardize the seat pitch for the remaining rows on all aircraft to 31 to 32 inches.” On some aircraft, today’s seat pitch is as high as 34 inches so it will be a change for the worse for those who don’t want to pay for legroom.

Southwest, on the other hand, announced awhile ago that it would introduce new, denser seating on its airplanes. It’s adding a row of seats but all seats will be the same on the airplane.

Which strategy is right? These are all customer-friendly airlines and they’re using different tactics. I’d argue Southwest is missing the boat on this one. Why? It’s not a perfect comparison but we can learn alot from the failure of American’s More Room Throughout Coach many years ago while United’s Economy Plus succeeded.

There is value in the upsell.

When American first rolled out increased legroom for all coach seats on the airplane many years ago, the idea was to become a premium airline that people would pay extra to fly. That didn’t happen. A lot of coach travel is viewed by consumers as a commodity. They just want to get places for cheap. So when American removed seats, it increased its unit costs (costs ended up being spread out over fewer seats) and it couldn’t get enough revenue to justify it.

With United, however, Economy Plus was just a subsection of coach. It took the airline years to figure this out, but there are absolutely some people who will pay for more legroom. Some people. United’s Economy Plus has now become so popular and profitable that not only did the new (ex-Continental) management decide to keep it despite biases to do otherwise, but American and Delta have all copied it as well.

JetBlue used to have two inches more legroom in the front half of the airplane on its A320s but it never charged for it. The airline rearranged rows and created the Even More Legroom product which it could sell to those who were interested. It was a success and JetBlue has brought in tons of cash with the program. Now it is expanding it further on the Embraer 190.

WestJet is possibly more interesting as a comparison since it is often thought of as the Southwest of Canada. But the egalitarian model doesn’t look as good north of the border anymore. Though WestJet has good legroom for all travelers today, those travelers don’t all want to pay for it. Now the airline can give average legroom in the back while upselling to those who want to pay more to get more.

That makes a lot of sense. So when Southwest decided to redo its seating, why didn’t it do the same? Instead of adding an extra row, the airline could have just reduced seat pitch (which it did) and added a couple of rows of premium economy. Maybe then it could bundle it with Business Select fares and actually drive some revenue with that product. (Business Select makes a lot less than JetBlue makes with its extra legroom seats and JetBlue is a much smaller airline.)

I know for Southwest, the idea is to remain that same egalitarian airline that it’s always been. But in a world where people are willing to pay more for more, you’d think the airline might have thought differently. It seems to me that WestJet and JetBlue are making smart moves here.

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