The Commodification of the Exit Row

For some airlines, exit-row seating is being included in their a la carte offerings.
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This story appears in the March 2010 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

For This They Charge $25?

Here's what the exit-row extra bucks get you. It's not all good.

More legroom--an additional 3 to 5 inches, depending on the carrier--plus, sometimes the row in front of you doesn't recline.

Armrests don't always fold up. Tray tables are often unwieldy and folded into armrests.

The actual seat can be smaller than other seats--that is, shorter from your hips to your knees--to allow more room in the exit "aisle."

In an emergency, you're in the hot seat.
Whoever said the best things in life are free never flew coach. Economy-class passengers have waved goodbye to free snacks, free checked bags and, increasingly, free exit-row seating.

"Exit-row seats are now considered a service that can be charged as part of the a la carte pricing scheme," says Bob Mann, airline industry analyst and founder of R.W. Mann & Co. Inc. in Port Washington, N.Y. In the good old days--about four years ago--airlines assigned these seats at the gate or allowed a pre-screened group of fliers to pre-book them. They were worth fighting for: Carriers generally provide 30 to 31 inches of pitch (the distance between one point on the seat to the same point on the seat behind) in coach, so an extra few inches of legroom makes a big difference.

But to snag an exit-row seat today, you'll need preferred mileage status or a willingness to shell out a little--or a lot--more dough.

An exit-row seat on Airtran will set you back $20. JetBlue Airways charges $10 or $20, depending on the length of the flight. Yes, that's each way. USAirways, United Airlines and Alaska Airlines hold the seats for elite coach passengers only.

Other airlines have created faux exit-row seats with additional legroom and are charging premiums for them. Frontier Airlines recently turned the first four rows of coach into "Stretch Rows," tacking on $15 to $25 for an additional 5 inches of legroom. Meanwhile, United created Economy Plus, for which you pay $425 a year for access to seats with 3 to 5 more inches of legroom. Plus, indeed.

When will it stop? Not anytime soon. The numbers are too good: Every quarter, the industry rakes in more than $1 billion from fees, and passengers continue to prove that legroom is valuable to them.

"Prices could keep going up," Mann says. "Like people say, the beatings will continue until morale improves--or the market finally puts its foot down."


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