In these cost-conscious times, more and more airlines are offering extra legroom at a price. Finding one's knees pressed up against the seat in front of you, while sitting hunched over a laptop that barely fits on the fold-down table, is a familiar scenario for the frequent flyer downgraded to cattle class.
Travelling at the back of the plane is uncomfortable enough for most of us, but for those who are taller than average - in India, it can be unbearable, especially on long-haul flights. So the option of pre-booking a seat with extra legroom can make all the difference.
How to get hold of one of these sought-after seats will depend on which airline you are flying with, and many of them now charge for the privilege (see panel overleaf). The number of seats offering extra legroom - because they are behind a bulkhead, by an emergency exit or there is more space between rows - also depends on the aircraft. On one of Virgin's A340-300s, you could expect only four exit row seats and 12 bulkhead seats in economy, while its B747s have 18 exit row seats and eight by a bulkhead.
How much legroom a standard economy seat gives you can differ greatly from airline to airline - a short-haul carrier might provide only a 28- or 29-inch pitch (the measurement from one point on your seat to the same point on the seat in front), while most long-haul airlines offer 30-33 inches.
On a no-frills flight operated by the likes of Easyjet, where seats are not pre-assigned, the only way you can try to secure an exit row position is either to pay for Speedy Boarding or to arrive at the gate early and fight your way on to the plane first. Where carriers offer the option of paying to pre-select your seat, it is a matter of weighing up the cost with the length of your journey and how uncomfortable you think you will be.
Again, take Virgin, which introduced this policy about six years ago, as an example. Exit row seats are only available at check-in on the day of departure (other airlines may allow you to pre-book them online up to 24 hours before you fly) and cost £50 to £125 each way depending on your destination (a seat with three extra inches of legroom will cost you from £30 each way). So if you are flying from London to Sydney, the most expensive journey, you would be looking at paying an extra £250 return to sit by an exit.
To illustrate, when we checked the price of an economy flight departing in mid-January it was £1,707, including the exit row supplement, while a premium economy seat with a 38-inch pitch (seven inches more than in standard economy, but less than that offered in an exit row) cost £2,304 - almost £600 more. So if legroom is your primary concern, paying a supplement to secure an exit row seat is the better option.
The benefits to carriers of charging for this service are obvious. While most are reluctant to reveal how much revenue per year they make from it, Continental Airlines, which started offering extra legroom for a price in March, says it typically generates US$120,000-US$140,000 a day - about US$50 million a year. A Continental spokesperson says: "We have exceeded our financial expectations with this programme, despite the fact that our Elite frequent flyers get these seat assignments for free. Seats with additional legroom are now the most sought-after after upgrades to Business First [business class]."
But what about the passengers? Most airlines say it has been a popular move with them too. A Virgin spokesperson says: "We hoped that by implementing a charge for these seats, they would remain available for those who valued them the most. In doing this we did not reduce the legroom offered in the remaining economy seats. We tend to sell the vast majority of extra legroom seats - if passengers didn't want to pay for them, they wouldn't."
The people "valuing them the most" presumably being tall people with little option. But, according to BA, at least this gives them a way of ensuring a more comfortable journey. "You will always have some people who are very tall or are bigger, and aircraft seats are made for the average person," a spokesperson says. "But with emergency exit seats, the idea was to give [taller passengers] the chance to guarantee they could get one."
Continental agrees: "Seats with additional legroom are higher-value, and we want to offer them to customers who recognise that value. It made no sense commercially to give away the best economy seats on the aircraft when certain customers valued those seats strongly enough to pay extra for them. It could be argued that the introduction of charges has discouraged those customers who least require the extra legroom from booking them, thus increasing their availability to tall customers."
So what would happen if you had paid for extra space but for one reason or another - a change of aircraft, for example, or a decision by crew that you were not fit to sit by an exit - you were not granted it? Simon Evans, chief executive of consumer watchdog the Air Transport Users Council, says that in such cases the airline simply refunds the supplement and that is the end of the matter.
Some airlines are taking their extra legroom offering a step further, offering more spacious "zones" where the economy seat is the same but the pitch has been increased. KLM's Economy Comfort option offers an extra four inches of legroom for EUR80-150 each way (for a review see businesstraveller.com/tried-and-tested), while United's Economy Plus seats offer up to five extra inches of legroom from about US$9 to US$59 depending on the route. While Air New Zealand's economy "Sky Couch" has got everyone talking (available only on the B777-300ERs), it doesn't actually offer a greater pitch, instead providing passengers with more space to stretch out horizontally.
So would you pay for more legroom? A recent businesstraveller.com poll of more than 500 flyers revealed that 37 per cent had shelled out for it, showing the market is there. Though whether it proved to be worth the money was probably determined by how tall they were:
The law of legroom
These days, as cabin comfort improves, it is easy to forget the safety implications associated with where you sit and the amount of space you have. Positioning yourself by an emergency exit is about more than getting the most legroom possible - if there is a situation where people need to evacuate, you will be the one opening the hatch. The space between rows is also something that has been carefully considered - while it is in the airline's economic interests to install as many seats as possible, for the aircraft to be certified it will have to meet the manufacturer's guidelines on how many people can be safely accommodated.
While economy seating may feel cramped sometimes, tests have to prove that passengers can be evacuated within 90 seconds, so the minimum amount of legroom you get will be affected by this. After the British Airtours accident at Manchester airport in 1985, in which 55 people died in a fire that broke out on board a B737 during take-off, legislation was brought in to ensure rows weren't packed too closely together. Further regulations have since been introduced to improve in-flight safety.
According to the Civil Aviation Authority's 1992 Mandatory Requirements for Airworthiness, the minimum distance between the back support cushion of a seat and the back of the seat or other fixed structure in front is 26 inches (roughly a 28-inch pitch). While this is still quite tight, Simon Evans at the Air Transport Users Council says it is not as dense as the configuration on the British Airtours B737. He adds: "Litigation is so tight now that if there was a crash and it was found that airlines were packing people in ridiculously, there would be an investigation - and, boy, would there be lawsuits."
Who charges for legroom?
Air Canada Depends on route - from Europe to Canada costs CA$50 each way.
Air France EUR50 each way for journeys of nine hours or less, or EUR70 per flight for journeys over nine hours.
British Airways Short-haul £10 and long-haul from £20 each way up to 25 hours before departure; long-haul £50 for exit row seats from 14 to four days before departure. Free seat choice at check-in from 24 hours beforehand.
Cathay Pacific Long-haul US$100 or 20,000 Asia Miles, short-haul US$25 or 5,000 Asia Miles.
Continental Airlines Price depends on type of seat, journey time, date and route. A lower levy may apply for extra legroom seats with limited or no recline.
Finnair EUR60 each way on intercontinental flights.
Flybe £15 (£18 at the airport) each way for exit or bulkhead seats.
KLM e20-e70 each way. Seats in the Economy Comfort zone cost e80-e150 each way.
Qantas AU$40 short-haul, AU$80 medium-haul, AU$160 long-haul.
Singapore Airlines US$50 each way.
United Airlines From about US$9-US$59 each way for Economy Plus seats depending on route.
Virgin Atlantic From £30 each way for extra legroom. £50-£125 for an exit seat each way.
Air New Zealand, American Airlines, ANA, Delta Air Lines, Etihad Airways, Jet Airways, Korean Air, Lufthansa, Oman Air, Qatar Airways, Swiss, South African Airways and Thai Airways are among the airlines that do not charge for extra legroom.
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