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Are Airlines Ready for Another Cabin Class? : Air fares: Carriers consider splitting coach between full-fare customers and those flying on discount rates.

August 16, 1992|JACK ADLER

Should coach-class passengers who pay regular fares have separate seating sections and more perks than coach passengers flying on discount fares?

In point of fact, most coach-class passengers fly on some kind of discount fare. Yet they sit in the same section as those full-fare coach passengers.

Playing around with classes of service on flights is one way that airlines seek to spur business and differentiate themselves from competing carriers. First- , business and coach class (also called "economy class") are the traditional divisions of service, though some carriers use only coach and business classes, with the latter often given various names to suggest first-class status.

Business class arose from the perception by airlines of the need to give full-fare economy passengers--those who couldn't take advantage of advance purchase and other promotional rates--more for their money. At the same time, the airlines raised the price for the new class of service.

But given current economic conditions and subsequent cutbacks in company travel budgets, a substantial number of business travelers are opting to fly at the coach rate instead of the higher business fare. However, these business travelers still may not be able to take advantage of discount fares because of advance-purchase requirements and restrictions.

In 1990, British Airways conducted an eight-month test in the Houston-Dallas market involving an "economy select" class, as well as the standard coach class. Full-fare-paying economy passengers were entitled to fly in a new area on the carrier's DC-10-30 flights from Texas to London.

Meanwhile, coach-class passengers using discounted tickets flew in the usual coach cabin. The seating configuration was the same in the two coach sections--two-seat aisles next to the windows sandwiching a center aisle with five seats. However, passengers in the "select" area used a separate check-in area and received an extra three inches of space between the seat rows. On long flights, more stretch room is a key comfort factor.

The test was designed to see how many business travelers could be induced to fly on a full-fare basis in the newly dedicated cabin section.

"After evaluating the experiment, we decided not to create a permanent fourth class of service, what with two classes of coach passengers as well as business and first-class," said British Airways spokesman John Lampl. "Instead, we strengthened the perks offered full-fare-paying coach passengers, such as offering them preferential seating in their section."

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Now, another airline, Virgin Atlantic, has launched a similar program on a system-wide basis. Virgin Atlantic has created a new "mid-class," which divides its regular economy class between full-fare and discount-fare passengers. Previously, the carrier offered two classes of service--economy and the more expensive "upper class," billed as offering first-class at business-fare levels.

In effect, the new mid-class service, which went into effect last month, will serve as an enhanced coach class.

Virgin Atlantic's research indicated that most coach-class passengers weren't paying the full coach fare. However, there were also a substantial number of passengers who wanted the flexibility of the full coach fare and were willing to pay that rate to avoid advance-purchase and other restrictive fare conditions.

"We feel that the risk of upper-class passengers downgrading to mid-class is negligible, and that it's more likely that discount coach-class passengers will upgrade to mid-class," said Lori Levin, a Virgin Atlantic spokeswoman.

So what do passengers get for paying full coach fare?

For starters, a separate check-in area is available. Aboard the jet, the new section has a hard curtain partition separating the two sections. Reconfiguration of the carrier's 747s meant a loss of 40-46 coach-class seats.

Seats in the new section are on a 2-4-2 configuration, compared With the regular coach-class configuration of 3-5-3. There are 38 inches of seat pitch between rows, compared to 34 or fewer inches in the back of the jet. Seats are also wider--48 inches compared to 40 inches for the other coach seats.

In addition, the seats have individual armrest videos that fold under the seat when not in use. Regular coach-class seats have six-inch seat-back videos.

Virgin Atlantic anticipates raising the number of passengers traveling on full coach fare from the current level of 4% to 10%. The jury, of course, is still out on whether segmenting full-fare coach passengers in some fashion will work for Virgin Atlantic, and whether the concept will spread to other carriers.

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Among the considerations in airline deliberations are the type of jet involved, and risking the loss of business-class passengers.

"At this point, we're not thinking of using a separate cabin or seating area for full-fare coach-class passengers due to the smaller capacity of the 767, which we use for transatlantic service," said SAS spokeswoman Eileen Drutman.

"We're pleased with the three-class system," said Delta spokesman Clay McConnell. "While in-flight service is the same for full-fare and discount coach-class passengers, the full-fare passengers have more flexibility in their tickets, which is the primary reason behind the fare difference."

From a travel agent's perspective, Brian Clewer, president of Santa Monica-based Continental Travel, said: "Any travel agent would like to see his full-fare coach clients get benefits above those offered to the multitude of discount passengers. However, less than 20% of economy passengers pay the full fare, and setting up a separate class or cabin for full-fare coach passengers is probably only of possible appeal to airlines that just use two classes of service."

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