archivelogo
 Barnett on Business Travel

chris GOOD FARES, BAD SEATS

BY CHRIS BARNETT

September 9, 2004 -- Wait! Before you mouse click on a fare for your next business flight, have you really crunched all the right numbers--including the seat pitch?

If you plan to use your airplane seat as a mile-high office to write on your laptop, read reams of reports or bone up for tomorrow's presentation, a discount fare that saves you $100 to $200 could be a costly waste of time and money if you can't be productive.

I recently gloated over snagging an aisle seat on a Frontier Airlines nonstop flight from San Francisco to Denver at the lowest price on Orbitz.com, $190 roundtrip.

Last time I flew Frontier, it was a pleasant journey with friendly, attentive flight attendants, room to spread out and work and a camaraderie among the staff that made me and other passengers feel good about the Denver-based airline.

But my recent San Francisco-Denver flight was jammed, the 737-200 was tired and the cabin attendants spent 90 percent of the trip gabbing to each other in the back of the plane. Worse, Frontier's seat pitch on its Boeing 737s is a tight 31 inches and the seats lean way, way back, making it virtually impossible to work on a laptop computer if the passenger in front exercises his or her absolute right to stretch and snooze.

Sure, you're okay if you can wangle a roomier exit row seat at the airport. I didn't try. Or if you have a small laptop computer or a tiny Palm-like device with a fold-up keyboard. I don't. So I lost the two hours of flight time that I had set aside to finish a story for a demanding editor who had already graciously granted me a deadline extension.

I wasn't alone. Chris Fredriksen, managing director of a California firm that trains CPAs worldwide, was wedged into the middle seat on the flight, trying to write on a half-opened notebook computer balanced on his stomach. "This is ridiculous," he said. "I can't work. What a waste of time." The lady in front of him had leaned back, almost into Fredriksen's lap, and there were no other open seats where he could move and escape the cramped conditions.

Still, don't scratch Frontier Airlines off your list. The bad seat was my mistake. The carrier also operates newer, roomier Airbus A319s on the San Francisco-Denver route, but I didn't ask for one. Seat pitch on those A319s is 33 inches and every seat has a video screen offering DirecTV service at a cost of $5 per flight. A Frontier consumer affairs specialist admits that the airline's 737s are "ancient" and are being phased out.

One chief executive who flies economy draws the line at flying an airline if he is squashed and cannot work. Jason Morris, who heads a Cleveland-based pre-employment background screening firm, recently swapped his Dell laptop with its 16-inch screen for a Sony Vaio with a 12-inch screen. Why? "I couldn't fully open the Dell on most flights, but the Sony works great," he explains.

Morris, a regular on the Chicago-Cleveland route, usually flies Continental Airlines, always books an aisle and shoots for a bulkhead seat. He says he avoids Southwest. "Even though it is a lot less expensive, it is too packed and there are no seat assignments. Continental flights often have the middle seat free, which is much more comfortable," he adds.

Still, there are no guarantees of comfort on Continental, either. Morris sometimes ends up flying a 50-seat regional jet (RJ) on Continental's Cleveland-to-Chicago route. That's one reason why he bought the smaller Sony Vaio laptop.

Generally speaking, business travelers avoid RJs like the plague, especially if they want to work in-flight. They are a wretched way to fly--unless you happen to be booked on Independence Air. Why? With load factors below 50 percent since its launch in June, Independence's RJs are often sparsely populated.

Among the Big Six airlines, American Airlines can be the best deal in terms of cost and comfort. The Dallas-based airline has chopped fares on many of its mainline routes and still has its 34-inch seat pitch on many of its aircraft. But it has crammed more seats back into its Boeing 757s and Airbus A300s and reduced the legroom at each chair to 31 inches. Bottom line: Make sure you get a combination of a great fare, the added legroom and, if you're an American loyalist, the AAdvantage miles--or look to book elsewhere.

United Airlines has 34-inch seating available on most flights, but the so-called Economy Plus sections at the front of the coach cabins are reserved for its frequent fliers or travelers who pay the inflated, unrestricted fares.

Delta Air Lines offers just 31 inches of seat pitch on its flights. But its low-fare Song service offers leather seats, 33 inches of legroom and free satellite television. And much to the surprise of some observers, Delta said on Wednesday that it would increase Song's fleet by one-third and expand the Song route network.

Overall, the best combination of fares and comfort in economy class is available from JetBlue Airways. JetBlue's legroom is 34 inches on all of its seats behind the exit rows. (The seat pitch is a less-comfy 32 inches in the first ten rows of the carrier's Airbus A-320s.) Plus, JetBlue has assigned seating. It doesn't take a quantum physicist to figure out how to be comfortable and productive on the four-year-old airline. All the seats are leather, the at-seat DirecTV is free and, even with the highest load factor in the industry (almost 88 percent, says Aviation Daily), JetBlue is hard to beat.

The smartest way to find the most comfortable seat on your next flight is to click on SeatGuru.com. This free site has the aircraft seating charts of most U.S. airlines. For instance, I found that AirTran Airways has jettisoned all its old DC-9s and now flies new Boeing 717-200s. The catch? Seat pitch in coach is a super-tight 30 inches. (For possible relief, AirTran allows coach passengers to upgrade to its roomier business class for $35 to $75 depending on seat availability and distance flown.)

Still, for maximum cost-effective flying comfort, shop for the best fare and note the type of aircraft scheduled to make the flight. Then check SeatGuru.com for seat width and pitch. (Of course, there's no guarantee that the designated airplane will actually carry you to your destination.) And don't forget the other variable: load factors. If a plane has a load factor exceeding 67 percent, the middle seats will start to fill up and your personal space will be reduced. As of July, more than a dozen U.S. airlines--discounters and major carriers alike--reported load factors starting at 79 percent, so don't expect a lot of space aloft for quiet work.

This column originally appeared at JoeSentMe.com.

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