If last year's sales buzzword for the airlines was 'basic economy,' this year's is 'premium economy,' with the U.S. Big Three swapping seat configurations to add more of the popular but pricey seats.
While basic economy, with its restricted baggage and other rules, was aimed at protecting market share from the ultra low-cost carriers such as Spirit and Frontier, the premium push is designed to get more revenue from bigger-buck spenders lured by promises of more footroom, more food or drink and other privileges.
To create those revenue-generating seats, all three of the majors are literally moving seats, sometimes reducing the number available to make space for the roomier seats that can sell for twice the price of a regular economy seat. As a result, for example, Delta made one-third of its revenue at the front of the plane last year, and less than half from economy. In 2011, two-thirds came from the cheap seats.
United is making two of the bolder moves.It is retrofitting 100 existing planes as part of a plan to add 1,600 premium seats across 250 jets, and it's introducing a sort-of-new regional jet to bring premium-to-luxury seats on short hauls that feed passengers to major hubs.
The new plane, designated CRJ 550 is built by Canada's Bombardier, uses the airframe of the CRJ 700, but changes interior arrangements to hold 10 business-class seats, 20 premium economy and only 20 regular seats. United hopes the added premium seats will overcome the hate many passengers feel for 50-seaters with minimum amenities. The 550s will include WiFi and big-plane amenities to lure business flyers. The first route should be a clue: the plane will fly Walmart-exec-heavy route from Bentonville, Arkansas to Chicago.