Alaska Airlines Adds Extra Legroom Seating But Does It a Bit Differently

Ever since United learned how to monetize Economy Plus about a decade ago, US-based airlines have nearly all come around to the idea of selling seats with more legroom on their aircraft (excluding Southwest, most notably). Last week, another one took the plunge with Alaska deciding to add extra legroom seating on most of its fleet. Alaska is going about this a bit differently from the others.

Alaska Extra Legroom Seating

First, let’s look at the details. The 737-800s will go from having 16 First Class seats and 147 coach seats to having 12 First, 30 extra legroom, and 117 coach. In other words, it will lose 4 First Class seats in the transition. This sounds bad, but the remaining First Class seats will actually get a few more inches of legroom (pitch increases from 36 to 41 inches) so it’ll be a better product. Coach won’t change.

The 737-900 is more of a mixed bag. It goes from 16 First and 165 coach to 16 First, 24 extra legroom, and 138 coach. First Class on this airplane gets more legroom as on the 737-800, so how is it possible that this configuration change only requires eliminating 3 coach seats? Well, Alaska tells me that “less than 7 percent” of the seats in the back of coach will have seat pitch reduced to 30 inches. So avoid the last couple rows on that airplane.

Lastly, there’s the Embraer 175 which is becoming increasingly important in the Alaska regional fleet. That goes from 12 First and 64 coach to 12 First, 12 extra legroom, and 52 coach. Wait, what? What is this sorcery? Turns out, Alaska already has 12 seats at 34 inch pitch, so those will now just be sold instead of given away. Alaska does say that its extra legroom seats will have 35 inches of pitch, so maybe they’ll add an extra inch. The Embraer 175 can hold more people than it does, but pilot scope contracts generally restrict it to 76 seats. That’s why extra legroom seating on that airplane is a no-brainer.

That leaves the 40 737-400s and -700s which won’t get extra legroom seating. Those are both being phased out over time, but for now they’ll still sell exit rows and bulkheads at check-in if available, as they do today. Oh, and then Horizon’s Q400 aircraft won’t get it either. Keep that in mind if you’re on one of the longer legs on that airplane.

That’s the physical basics, but what’s different about this? It doesn’t sound much different so far. Well, there are two things of note.

What’s Different?
First, most airlines these days give extra legroom seating to their top elites at the time of booking. Lower level elites get access at check-in. Alaska is adding a fare class component to the process. Here’s how it works.

  • Top-tier MVP Gold 75Ks can reserve extra legroom seats at the time of booking in any fare class.
  • Second-tier MVP Golds can reserve extra legroom seats at the time of booking in all fare classes except for the lowest ones (G, T, and R). If they’re booked in those classes, they’ll be automatically moved up within 72 hours of travel, if available. (It remains to be seen if someone will be moved from a regular aisle into an extra legroom middle if that’s all that’s available.)
  • Bottom-tier MVPs can reserve extra legroom seats at the time of booking only in the highest fare classes (Y, S, and B). If they’re booked in any other class, they’ll be automatically moved up within 24 hours of travel, if available.

And the second difference? Well we don’t know yet. All we have is this cryptic little nugget.

Alaska Airlines plans to offer additional amenities to further enhance the Premium Class in-flight experience.

I asked for more detail and didn’t get very far. We’ll have to wait until closer to launch to find out whether this means something significant, like free massages and gourmet meals, or something stupid like different colored napkins. (I’ll put my money on something in between.)

If you’re wondering how long you’ll have to wait, it’ll be awhile. It won’t roll out until late 2016. There will be sixty aircraft completed by the end of next year with the rest done by the end of 2017.

My Take
In general, I’m a big fan of extra legroom sections. Travelers get to pick if the legroom is worth the extra cost. For taller people (I am not one of them), this is huge. And for top tier elites, it gives them an instant improvement in the experience on the airline.

For Alaska, this makes a great deal of sense especially as it continues to expand into longer haul flying. In Seattle, Comfort+ was a big differentiator for Delta and probably was enough to sway people away from Alaska. This will probably get them back.

People who fly in First Class on Alaska know how limited the legroom is, so that’ll be a nice change. But I have no doubt that there will be all kinds of groaning about the loss of 4 First seats on the 737-800. Still, it’s worth it.

I’m less happy about the knee-crunching pitch in the last couple rows of the 737-900. I’m sure that was the only way to make this project make sense financially, but I still don’t like it.

Lastly, the part about restricting who can sit in the extra legroom seats by status isn’t particularly helpful unless Alaska changes the way it sells tickets. Alaska doesn’t have branded fare categories, so it’s not like someone would actively choose to buy a higher fare class. You just buy the fare that appears for the flights you need. If Alaska starts doing something more branded, then that changes things.

[Original photo via Alaska Airlines]

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23 Responses to Alaska Airlines Adds Extra Legroom Seating But Does It a Bit Differently

  1. SeattleFlyer says:

    Hey Cranky, Actually, AS gives you the ability to search by upgradeable fares or all fares, based on your level of status. Over there on the right hand-side: https://www.alaskaair.com/planbook?

    • CalanMan says:

      Yes! I was just thinking this. But even more ‘conveniently,’ the fares that let Golds immediately select the extra legroom seats (all but G, R & T) are the same fares that allow for MVP Gold Guest Upgrade certificates to be used, and the fares that let MVPs immediately select extra legroom (only Y, S & B) are the same fares that give MVPs immediate upgrades. So the selections that you can make when searching for upgradable tickets now are already selecting for the right fares here, they’ll just have to re-label them.

    • SeattleFlyer – I get that they let you search along those lines, but I would be amazed if people were willing to spend significantly more to be able to sit in the extra legroom section without paying more. We really need to see how pricing works, but I can understand someone paying more to be able to sit in F. But just extra legroom? I don’t see it.

  2. Alex Hill says:

    “Less than 7%” of 138 sounds a lot like 9 seats (since 0.07*138=9.66). So that means that three rows on the side of the 737-900 that isn’t losing a row will lose an inch of pitch. Annoying but not terrible; I feared much worse.

    • southbay flier says:

      9 seats is 2 rows since each row has 2 sets of 3 seats or 6 seats per row.

      • Alex Hill says:

        Coach is losing three seats, so one side of the plane is losing a row. I’m assuming that the nine seats are all on the side of the plane that’s not losing a row. Therefore, nine seats is three rows.

        • southbay flier says:

          They could also eliminate a lav in back or move the closet from in front of F to behind F, like DL has on their 737-900. Who knows until the new configuration is published.

  3. Alex Hill says:

    Cranky, do you have any word if AA elites will get the equivalent of their MVP counterparts? Given that MVPs get access to Main Cabin Extra on AA, I would hope so.

    As for the “additional amenities”, I’d guess a free entertainment tablet, a free adult beverage, and possibly a free meal. That’s what MVP Gold 75Ks already get in coach and similar to what Delta Comfort+ offers.

  4. A says:

    Does the extra legroom really give “top tier” elites a better experience? Aren’t the highest level elites usually upgraded to F anyway? Reducing seats up front is not what I call a better experience for them.

    As someone who flies DL regularly I’d say the C+ benefits most the middle tiered elites. People like me that are only Gold or Silver actually can get something for our status while the higher elites usually fill up the front of the plane long before my # comes up. AS may be doing things slightly different here but I don’t see their plans substantially different with regards to who might get something they didn’t before.

    • JuliaZ says:

      As an Alaska MVP, I’m always added to the waitlist for F. I fly mainly SEA – DCA and SEA – DFW, and usually there are 30-50 MVPs on those flights. Usually 2 or 3 get upgraded. So no, we don’t get upgraded all that often. I still love Alaska and find it a much better product than Delta.

      • Hua says:

        I too am an Alaska MVP. A agree with your points but “A” was asking about the highest level elites. As MVPs we’re not the highest level elites — those would be the MVP 75K members.

    • Hua says:

      I think improved F pitch on Alaska will be well worth it. Was just on an AA 737-800 in F and it was comfortable rather than tight… Alaska’s F seat and pitch are one of the biggest complaints about the airline and I am glad they’re addressing it.

      As for top tier elites benefitting in the new extra legroom section, I think top tier elites who tend to book at the last minute will stand to benefit the most since there is little chance of an F seat being available. At least there will be a better shot at a consolation prize this way (only so many bulkhead and exit row seats to go around) and the F comfort will increase for those who are willing to pay or have the status to get the upgrade.

  5. David SF eastbay says:

    You would think they would make those seats available to anyone buying a full coach seat and offer any open seats to anyone day of flight who wanted to purchase an upgrade to one.

  6. jonathan reed says:

    Maybe the next step is to offer in the coach plus section 3+2 seating instead of 3+3 for a single aisle plane. When you see a 6’6″ 300 lb. guy boarding and you see a 4’11” petite woman you realize one seat size really doesn’t fit all. There should be a way to accommodate big people w/o forcing them to buy into all of the luxury of fifirst class.

    • Alex Hill says:

      Why?

      An additional premium economy product between international coach and international business (with lie-flat seats and a price premium in the thousands of dollars) with an improved seat makes sense.

      The difference between domestic economy and domestic first (with somewhat-wider recliner seats and somewhat-improved seats and a price premium from nothing — restricted first class seats are sometimes cheaper than coach shortly before a flight — to a few hundred dollars) is not enough to suggest a need for a different seat design in between coach and first, in my opinion. True premium economy (with wider seats, not just more legroom) isn’t going to cannibalize sales of lie-flat seats in business, but it would cannibalize sales of domestic first. So why should the airlines add the complication?

      Moreover, there’s a logistical concern: going from a 2×2 (F) to a 2×3 (premium economy) to a 3×3 (economy) layout on a narrow-body requires two zig-zags in the aisle. That’s annoying for carts and rollaboards and (more importantly to the bean counters) requires a bit of extra space between rows. If they have to do it once to make an F cabin fit (on DC-9 derivatives and regional jets with F), fine, but adding a 2×3 section and forcing two zig-zags in the aisle on a narrowbody strikes me as very unlikely.

    • A says:

      Personally, if you can’t fit into a standard 17″ seat width I think you should either buy up to F or purchase two coach seats. Premium coach seats have never been sold as a “wider” seat.

      • David M says:

        Not in the US, but foreign airlines’ premium economy such as EVA Air’s Elite Class and British Airways’ World Traveler Plus do give a wider seat in addition to more legroom. Even American’s Main Cabin Extra has a wider seat on the 777-300ER.

  7. Jim M says:

    I hate “less than economy” seats. As an occasional last minute business flier I find myself often at the back of the bus. Not awesome — and a great reason to keep patronizing Southwest.

  8. southbay flier says:

    It’ll be nice for AS to add pitch to F, but hopefully, they will come up with more padded seats. Their F padding is the worst I’ve ever flown on.

  9. jaybru says:

    This is becoming all so complicated, (thank you airlines, I know I’m getting screwed), but do you really think you know what you are doing?

    Seat pitch, for me, anything less than Econ+ 34″ is unacceptable. Actually, 31″ is the starting point for “cruel and unusual,” in my book, with my legs. (Thank goodness, I was born early in life, whatever, that I accrued miles to become a “1 Million Miler” that gives me status to book those seats, no extra charge.)

    I’m sure this won’t last forever. The airline will charge me a flight or annual Econ+ seat-pitch fee for the privilege I thought I had earned..

    Eventually, maybe the airlines will design seats, each of which can be adjusted to any pitch you may want and are willing to pay for. Just before boarding time, someone presses the button and all 200 seats adjust to whatever pitch the manifest says you paid for. Have to have a little planning, of course, so the last rows of seats don’t get pushed back into the tail!

    • Kilroy says:

      I doubt it would ever be worth the hassle/weight/confusion, but a plane with seat pitch that can be quickly changed between flights makes for an interesting thought exercise… What if, upon booking, the airline only guaranteed you a seat at a minimum bonecrunching pitch (say, 28″?)? Then, a few days or hours before the flight, the airline opened upgrades, and allowed pax to bid (basically bid against each other, in a Dutch auction format) or pay different amounts for each 2″ in additional pitch? Think of it as the logical extension of allowing pax to pay extra to reserve a window/aisle/exit row/front of plane seat. It then probably wouldn’t be that difficult to write a program that could decide 30 minutes before the incoming plane arrived how it should be configured. On flights with lots of children (Disney runs?) or with a lot of customers who didn’t want to pay for more pitch, on combi planes the airline could even add a movable bulkhead and carry extra freight.

      During the turns, someone would just insert a special key, say, and then slide each row of seats back and forth (just like you do in a car without power seats) until the desired pitch for that row on that side of the plane had been reached. Seating assignments would have already been blasted out to pax’ smart phones 30 minutes or whatever before boarding began.

      I’m not sure how well this could be done with regards to regulations, safety, and pax confusion. That said, if airlines really want to maximize revenue, why not make pax bid against each other for each inch or two of pitch, with perhaps a “Buy It Now” option ahead of time for pax who know they want additional pitch but who don’t want the uncertainty of dealing with the auction?

  10. Do I Care? says:

    My take suggests a small reduction in First Class seating. I suggest that all of the reduction will come from the already limited inventory made available as Award Tickets. In the end, they just want to reduce the number of seats that are non-rev space.

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