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 Barnett on Business Travel

chris A BETTER CLASS
OF INTERNATIONAL COACH


BY CHRIS BARNETT

June 17, 2004 -- International travelers who feel cramped back in coach but can't afford business- or first-class fares and can't get upgraded have a little-known comfort option on some airlines. A handful of international carriers sell an "economy plus" ticket with a bigger seat, more legroom and some of the perks doled out in the front of the bus.

This plusher version of economy class makes terrific sense. Especially if you're stuck on the plane five hours or 10 hours or longer, want to sleep, work on a laptop computer or would like to arrive without feeling like a cadaver, wasted for your first 24 to 48 hours on the ground.

Fares vary drastically--no surprise--but "economy plus" prices are usually the non-discounted full-coach price, which airlines call the Y fare. Nobody with a brain would pay it to fly cattle class, but dress it up with a roomier seat and a few frills and the so-called "straight Y" fare can be a bargain.

British Airways' World Traveller Plus class is a good example of the concept. It has its own curtained-off cabin behind Club World, BA's business class with lie-flat beds. World Traveller Plus has eight seats across and each seat offers 38 inches of legroom and an adjustable footrest. By contrast, BA's World Traveller economy class is packed 10 seats across with a scant 31 inches of legroom and no footrests.

World Traveller Plus seats are also three inches wider than BA's coach chairs and are equipped with a power port for laptop computers. The lighting is individually controlled and drinks are gratis. Meals are the same as in World Traveller, except that Plus flyers get real glassware, not plastic. Passengers get a free newspaper, but there's no separate airport check-in line.

On a recent flight, I found World Traveler Plus much more comfortable than economy. Four other cabin mates I spoke with gave it the thumbs up, too.

Nick Basol, a patent attorney with Kilburn & Strode in London, booked World Traveller Plus for $1,500 roundtrip to San Francisco "purely for the legroom. I can bear a two-hour flight back in economy, but nine or 10 hours? Forget it." He also flies Virgin Atlantic's Premium Economy class, which the iconoclastic Virgin introduced several years before BA added World Traveler Plus in 2000.

Paul Whyte, a London biotech executive, praised the wider seat, added legroom, roomier overhead bins and the fact that "I can use my laptop in-flight." In economy, he says, seating is so cramped that he can't work on his computer and he loses hours of "quiet working time." Plus, he says, vacationers have so much bulky carry-on baggage that the bins fill up fast and his hand luggage sometimes get checked in the belly of the plane out of his sight.

The price of comfort varies. Although Basol paid $1,500 roundtrip between London and San Francisco, BA's U.S. Web site quotes $2,260 plus $142 in taxes as its lowest roundtrip fare for San Francisco to London in World Traveller Plus. However, BA's frequent fare sales often sell upgrades to World Traveller Plus for $200-$300 one-way more than the advertised special coach fare. And the current "London for Free" fare sale, which is available through June 25 for travel this summer and fall, offers World Traveler Plus tickets for as little as $584 roundtrip between New York and London. That's just $250 more roundtrip than the $334 midweek, 7-day advance-purchase fare in coach this fall. (For complete details on the sale, see the British Steals & Deals page.)

By comparison, a seat in BA's business class is around $10,000 roundtrip from San Francisco to London. First class is now almost $15,000 roundtrip.

British Airways' archrival, Virgin Atlantic, sells an unrestricted Premium Economy seat from San Francisco to London for $1,799 roundtrip plus tax. The seats have headrests and leg rests and are about an inch narrower than BA's World Traveller Plus chairs. The legroom is the same 38 inches as BA's chairs and they have laptop power ports. Premium Economy passengers get a separate check-in line, "express economy" baggage reclaim, an in-flight amenities kit, a glass of champagne and three meal choices.

Across the Pacific, Taiwan's EVA Airways, China Southern and All Nippon Airways all fly to the United States with special "economy plus" cabins with roomier coach seats.

EVA's fourth cabin, Evergreen Deluxe, created in 1992 and priced $300 roundtrip more than coach class on all its transpacific flights, is a genuine bargain. Seats are an inch wider than coach, offer 38 inches of legroom and a leg rest. Passengers receive a 25 percent frequent-flyer mileage bonus and separate check-in at a special counter. EVA doesn't have in-seat power ports, however, so bring extra batteries for your laptop.

China Southern Airlines has a fancy Premium Economy class with white linen, fine china, 40 inches of legroom and a 50 percent discount on all intra-China flights. China Southern only offers it on its Boeing 777 flights between Guangzhou and Los Angeles; it costs about $500 more than the cheapest seats. ANA's Premium Coach, only available on its New York-to-Tokyo flights, offers seats with 38 inches of legroom, 6.5-inch personal TV screens with 50 entertainment channels and a PC power socket. Drinks are free and meals are no different than economy. Premium Coach is priced around $700 above regular economy.

Notice what's missing? A U.S. carrier offering an upgraded economy plus cabin. That's because none of the U.S. airlines have even made an attempt to crack the market. The closest in-flight product out there on a U.S. flag carrier is United's Economy Plus service. It's not even a separate cabin, just six to 11 rows at the front of coach. Seats are roomier--there is up to five inches more legroom than United's coach chairs--but otherwise everything else is the same as coach.

This column originally appeared at JoeSentMe.com.

Copyright © 2001-2004 by Chris Barnett. All rights reserved.