Alaska Airlines to introduce premium main cabin seating

Seattle-based Alaska Airlines has announced plans to roll out a Premium Class seating section beginning in late 2016.

The new upgrade option will provide passengers with three to four inches of additional legroom as compared to a standard coach seat. Seats in the Premium Class section will have at least 35 inches of pitch (the distance from the back of one seat to the back of the seat in front of it), compared to 31 to 32 inches in the rest of the main cabin.

An Alaska Airlines 737 departing SEA

Airline officials said the change is the direct outgrowth of customer feedback.

“We are listening to our customers and they have told us that more personal space and extra perks are a priority,” Andrew Harrison, EVP and chief commercial officer, said in a statement announcing the move.

To make room for the Premium Class, Alaska (NYSE:ALK) will reconfigure and reduce the number of seats available on some aircraft, although the airline said the pitch of seats elsewhere in the main cabin would not be reduced. In addition, the airline will be increasing the pitch of First Class seats from 36 inches to 41 inches, providing what the carrier called “[A] significantly enhanced experience for those customers.”

The changes will give Alaska’s customers more space than on similar aircraft operated by two of the big three U.S. carriers.

United Airlines (NYSE:UAL) and Delta Air Lines (NYSE:DAL) offer First Class seats aboard Boeing (NYSE:BA) 737s with 38 inches of pitch, according to United’s EconomyPlus seats offer 35 inches of pitch while Delta’s Comfort+ seats offer 34 inches of pitch.

The most common configuration of 737s operated by American Airlines (NYSE:AAL) offers the most space of the three major airlines -- between 40 and 42 inches of pitch in First Class and 35 to 37 inches of pitch in its Main Cabin Extra section.

None of the carriers, however, matches to the legroom aboard Virgin America’s Airbus A319s and 320s. Virgin America offers First Class seats with 55 inches of pitch, Main Cabin Select seats with 38 inches of pitch, and standard economy seats with 32 inches of pitch.

Along with the extra legroom, Alaska’s Premium Class customers will receive priority boarding and additional perks and amenities that the airline has not revealed in detail.

The upgrade option will be available to Alaska Airlines elite Mileage Plan members on a complimentary basis at the time of booking or on the day of travel, depending on the passenger’s frequent flier status and the fare purchased. Passengers who are not elite-tier Mileage Plan members will be able to purchase Premium Class seating on a space-available basis. Upgrade pricing and details on the included amenities will be announced closer to customer availability, the airline said.

Alaska plans to retrofit up to 60 aircraft with the Premium Class section by the end of 2016 and the remainder of its 737-800, -900 and -900ER fleet by the end of 2017. The 737-800s will have 30 Premium Class seats while the 900 series will have 24 Premium Class seats. The upgrade option will also be available on Embraer 175s, operated by SkyWest, which will be configured with 12 seats in the Premium Class section.

Importantly, the extra space in both the Premium Class and First Class sections will require a very small reduction in the airliners’ overall capacity. According to figures provided by Alaska, capacity of its 737-800s will be reduced by only four passengers and the 747-900s by three passengers.

With such a small potential revenue reduction, some of which may be made up by those passengers who will have to pay cash for upgrades, it begs the question: Alaska, what took you so long?

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Photo by Carl Dombek
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