JetBlue to Charge Passengers for More Leg Room

Next month, JetBlue Airways will start charging people extra for seats that have more leg room. Renee Montagne talks to David Field about this new trend of making people pay for leg room. Field is an editor with Airline Business Magazine.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

High fuel costs are adding to financial woes of the nation's airlines; hence, the pressure to come up with ways to wring more money from passengers. One recent trend: charging for leg room. JetBlue has just announced that starting in April, it will charge passengers extra for seats that have more leg room.

Joining us to talk about this trend in the airline industry, we turned to David Field. He's the U.S. editor with Airline Business Magazine. Good morning.

Mr. DAVID FIELD (Airline Business Magazine): Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Now, if I'm correct, six or eight inches of leg room for $10 or $20 extra, would you pay for that?

Mr. FIELD: If it were a long flight. If it were on a day I knew was a heavy travel day, I would certainly think about it, and I would probably do it. In fact, on other airlines that do this sort of thing, I have done it.

MONTAGNE: What other airlines besides JetBlue are doing this, and for those that are doing this, are they charging the same amount for the extra room to stretch?

Mr. FIELD: This is being done on a wider scale by United Airlines, which has a section up front between first class and the rest of coach. It calls it economy plus. They've been doing this for about two years. And the fee there depends on the length of the flight. I flew from Dulles Airport near Washington to Vancouver in British Columbia last year and paid about $50 extra for the economy plus. And on a trip like that, I felt it was worth it.

Northwest Airlines for some time has been letting people choose their seat. If you want an exit row - you know, the seat by the little door that always has more leg room - you pay extra for that. And even though they don't have a separate section of the airplane, you do have some choices there.

MONTAGNE: And is this a money maker? Although it seems just about any little thing makes money now for the airlines.

Mr. FIELD: Any little thing brings in extra revenue, whether or not it makes money with oil at $130 a barrel - which is what the airlines pay. For the airlines I don't know if it's enough.

But part of this isn't just money. Part of this is what they call product differentiation. If you say to yourself, oh, I like JetBlue because they're the ones with extra leg room, it has the brand solidified in your mind. It puts the brand higher up in your consciousness.

And even if you don't always choose to pay that $20-some-odd extra, as long as you think of JetBlue as opposed to the generic airlines, as long as you think of Northwest as opposed to every other airline, in that sense it does have real value.

MONTAGNE: You know, how are they doing this? Are the airlines taking out seats? And then what are they doing, squeezing more seats together in other areas, meaning for passengers who don't pay extra they have less leg room?

Mr. FIELD: No one loses leg room. On JetBlue no one loses leg room, and they didn't actually take out seats. They just sort of re-jiggered it. At United, you did have a slight re-jigging of the whole thing, and I believe one or two rows of seats were lost, but it was minimal. And United feels that it's making a pretty fair amount of money on it. They were thinking that they might get more than $200 million this year for that kind of fee alone.

MONTAGNE: To put this in perspective, are passengers generally more squished, if you will, have less leg room now than they did, say, 10 years ago?

Mr. FIELD: Generally no, but airplanes are more crowded. The average load factor, which is percentage of seats filled, was over 80 percent last year, and it was 90 percent in the busy months. Ninety percent of seats being filled means basically there's not an empty seat. Almost every middle seat is going to be filled. And you certainly feel you're more squished.

You do have the factor of more carry-on bags, which leaves you less room. And you do also have the factor of larger and larger passengers, which also makes you feel you have less room.

MONTAGNE: David, thanks very much.

Mr. FIELD: Hey, it's my pleasure.

MONTAGNE: David Field is the Americas editor at Airline Business Magazine.

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