Northwest to charge extra for prime seats

Passengers would pay $15 more

March 14, 2006|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Imagine you're booking a ticket in coach on a crowded flight within 24 hours of departure. Or you show up at the airport and want something better than that middle seat at the back of the plane.

Would you be willing to pay a little extra to get a more comfortable aisle or exit row seat?

Northwest Airlines expects some customers to be. Depending on the plane, exit row seats can provide up to 13 inches of additional legroom.

And many passengers prefer aisle seats to center and window seats.

Starting today, Northwest will set aside a handful of what it calls Coach Choice seats on every flight, expecting customers to pay an additional $15 to get them.

The seats will amount to about 5 percent of coach on Northwest's domestic flights. The airline won't let passengers reserve them until 24 hours before departure or, in the case of elite WorldPerks customers, 36 hours.

The initiative is a response to customers who lament that they can't get good coach seats when they buy tickets on short notice, especially when planes are crowded.

"The complaint we get from some customers who book close in is that most of the good seats are gone," said Jim Cron, Northwest's vice president for passenger marketing and sales. "Now, customers will have the option of staying where they are or upgrading. ... And this will allow us to potentially increase revenue if customers value this."

Northwest is keen on finding new revenue sources as it looks to emerge from bankruptcy protection. The airline has lost billions of dollars in recent years.

Cron wouldn't speculate on what the program might be worth to Northwest, saying he expects to get a handle on that as the open-ended trial unfolds over the next month or two.

Northwest has about 1,000 domestic flights daily. If it were to get $75 extra per flight from the seat initiative, that would work out to about $27 million a year.

On a 100-seat DC-9-30, five exit row and two aisle seats would be designated Coach Choice seats. Travelers won't have to pay a premium if no other seat is available on the plane, Cron said.

Like other airlines, Northwest sets aside some coach seats for its best customers. Typically, up to eight or nine rows of coach seats at the front of a plane are reserved for WorldPerks customers, those who fly at least 25,000 miles a year with Northwest,

Customers traveling on full-fare tickets also would have priority for those seats.

United Airlines passengers pay to upgrade to a section of coach that offers more legroom, Northwest noted. When United coach customers check in, they can pay up to $99 to upgrade to an Economy Plus coach seat with five more inches of legroom. They can also pay $299 for a yearlong Economy Plus membership.

United expects its Economy Plus program to bring in about $50 million in additional revenue this year.

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