Yes, you can escape from the knee-crunching confines of regular economy class. And you can do it without raiding your financial portfolio to pay for first or business class. Several big North American airlines plus KLM offer "semi-premium economy," or several rows of regular economy seats with added legroom.
You generally get the same cabin service as regular economy, with a few extra perks on some lines. As an ordinary traveler, you can buy your way into these extra-legroom seats when you reserve your ticket or just before departure, on a standby basis. If you're a high-ranking frequent flyer or you paid full-fare economy, you might get in for nothing extra or at a discounted price.
(Sample fares listed are based on a comparison for midweek flights in February 2013. Seat measurements were found on SeatGuru or the airlines' websites.)
United has installed Economy Plus seating on all pre-merger mainline planes and expects the installation on former Continental planes to be completed by the end of 2012. The seat pitch is 34 to 35 inches, compared with the regular pitch of 31 to 32 inches.
Economy Plus adds no extras. United pioneered the idea of semi-premium economy in North America, and its long-haul planes typically have at least twice as many semi-premium seats as other lines' similar planes.
Sample Price: The base economy fare between Boston and Los Angeles is $338 round-trip; Economy Plus adds $79 each way.
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Delta has installed Economy Comfort seating on all its mainline planes. The seat pitch is 34 to 35 inches, compared with a regular pitch of 31 to 32 inches. The flyers in Economy Comfort seats also get priority boarding on all flights and complimentary beverages on some international flights.
Sample Price: The base economy fare between New York and Seattle is $360 round-trip; Economy Comfort adds $79 each way. The biggest problem with Economy Comfort is that you can't see the price of the upgrade until you actually buy your regular economy ticket, a condition no other line imposes.
Virgin America calls its extra-legroom bulkhead and exit-row seats Main Cabin Select, and they're available on its entire fleet. The seat pitch is 38 inches, compared with a regular pitch of 32 inches. Main Cabin Select includes priority check-in, full meal and beverage service, and one free checked bag.
Sample Price: The base economy fare between New York and San Francisco is $168 one-way; Main Cabin Select adds $389 each way. Main Cabin Select is the most full-featured semi-premium class available, but it comes at a huge price increase over regular economy.
KLM has incorporated Economy Comfort seating in all its mainline aircrafts and many of its intra-European narrow-body planes. The seat pitch is 35 inches, compared with the regular pitch of 31 to 32 inches. KLM offers no extras.
Sample Price: The sample base economy fare between New York and Amsterdam is $874 round-trip; Economy Comfort adds $98 each way.
JetBlue's Even More Space seating is available on all A320s and E190s. The seat pitch is 38 inches, compared with the regular pitches of 34 inches on Airbus and 32 inches on Embraer planes. Even More Space also includes early boarding. JetBlue is the clear winner in the competition for extra legroom: Even More Space legroom is tops among all semi-premium offerings and is available at a moderate price, and JetBlue's regular economy seats provide almost the same legroom as other lines' semi-premium economy seats.
Sample Price: The base economy fare between New York and San Francisco is $168 one-way; Even More Space adds $65 each way.
Spirit offers first class-sized seats in the front of the plane. The airline's Big Front Seat is installed in just one front row of its A320s and A321s and three rows in its A319s. The seat pitch is 36 inches, compared with the regular pitch of 30 inches. Big Front Seat includes no extras.
Sample Price: The base economy fare between Detroit and Los Angeles is $153 one-way; Big Front Seat adds $60 each way.
Frontier has installed Stretch seating on all its 319s and E190s. The seat pitch is 36 to 38 inches, compared with a regular pitch of 31 inches. Frontier also adds priority boarding for Stretch flyers.
Sample Price: The base economy fare between Denver and Ft. Lauderdale is $268 round-trip; Stretch seating adds $40 each way.
Sun Country has taken a different approach to extra-room options, offering conventional first-class seating, with three-row first class cabins on its 737s. The seat pitch in first class is 39 inches, compared with the regular pitch of 31-33 inches. This cabin also includes typical first-class service: full meals, beverages, and two free checked bags. Prices are high.
Sample Price: The base economy fare between Minneapolis-St. Paul and Los Angeles is $190 one-way; first class adds $202 each way (if you book in advance) or $119 on a space-available basis (if you book within 24 hours of departure).
American Airlines and WestJet (to Come)
American Airlines and WestJet are in the process of installing semi-premium economy seats. American has announced semi-premium economy on its new 777-300ERs, with no configuration or fare details or timelines for other planes. WestJet is starting the conversion to semi-premium economy by reducing the seat pitch in most of the cabin from 32 to 34 inches to 31 inches, in order to increase the pitch on a few front rows to 35 or 36 inches.
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So far, we've heard nothing from Air Canada, Alaska, Allegiant, Hawaiian, or Southwest about semi-premium economy. Could these lines make a good business case? Could they be forced to move by competition, lured by extra income, or pressured by partner lines? Maybe, but so far they're keeping quiet. Keep watching.
To truly avoid the shoulder squeeze as well as the knee crunch, you have to turn to one of the big Asian, European, or Pacific airlines that offers True Premium Economy, a separate cabin with even more legroom, wider seats, and enhanced cabin service.