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VOL. 127 | NO. 43 | Friday, March 02, 2012

American to Make More Room for Some Economy Seats

DAVID KOENIG | AP Airlines Writer

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FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) – American Airlines plans to add a few roomier seats to its economy cabin and charge most passengers more for them.

Elite members of American's frequent-flier program and customers who buy full-fare coach tickets will get the perk for free, if the seats are available.

It's a strategy that United Airlines has been using for more than a decade to make more money and reward its most loyal customers. Delta Air Lines began a similar program last year.

American said Thursday that the first planes with Main Cabin Extra, as it calls the feature, will be new Boeing 737-800s this fall. American plans to retrofit "the vast majority" of its 600-plane fleet in the next 18 months.

American said the seats will have four to six inches more leg room than a standard economy seat, and they'll come with priority boarding. It didn't say how many there will be.

American said members of its AAdvantage frequent-flier program with at least 50,000 miles – along with customers who buy full-fare economy tickets – can get the roomier seats at no extra cost. Frequent fliers with 25,000 miles will get that perk until the end of 2013. American said it will hold back "a significant portion" of the seats for elite customers until check-in.

Other passengers, including AAdvantage members with fewer than 25,000 miles, will have to pay $8 to $108 extra per flight segment – each takeoff and landing – with prices based on flight length.

Both the extra room and the approach to pricing are similar to United's Economy Plus and Delta's Economy Comfort – elite-level frequent-flier members don't pay extra, but other travelers do. Delta, for example, charges most travelers $19 to $99 extra each way to upgrade from standard economy.

The extra revenue from selling the roomier seats comes with a trade-off: To make room, airlines must often remove a few other seats. A spokesman said that in most cases American will remove one row of economy seats. It won't reduce first-class and business-class seats in the front of the plane.

Clearly, airlines are willing to sacrifice a few regular seats. United, which began offering Economy Plus in 1999, has reconfigured about 480 planes so far and expects that to hit 700 when Continental jets are retrofitted by the end of this year, said spokesman Rahsaan Johnson. Delta began Economy Comfort on long international flights and announced plans in October to convert the entire fleet.

For American, there is a back-to-the-future element to the strategy. American removed seats from many planes to provide a few more inches of leg room in economy as a selling point around 2000, but it scrapped the idea a few years later.

American, a unit of AMR Corp., has fallen on hard times. It filed for bankruptcy protection in November. Under a turnaround plan, American hopes to cut spending by $2 billion a year and boost revenue by $1 billion, partly by offering new products and becoming more attractive to frequent travelers.

Follow David Koenig at www.twitter.com/airlinewriter

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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