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.

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.

  1. Top-tier MVP Gold 75Ks can reserve extra legroom seats at the time of booking in any fare class.

  2. 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.)

  3. 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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