Continental to charge for extra legroom

Continental Airlines announced today a new plan to charge for some of their most coveted seats – those with extra legroom.  The seats will remain available for top-tier elites to assign in advance with no charge.  Non-elite customers who want to sit in them will have to pay during the check-in process to have access to the seats.  Pricing has not been announced but it will vary based on the amount of extra legroom, seat recline and flight duration, among other things.

Most interesting in the announcement was this bit:

Extra legroom really means extra legroom. The seats that we’ll be selling have at least 7 inches of extra legroom. Specifically, our mainline aircraft will offer 10-12 extra inches on average, whereas our Continental Express aircraft will be closer to 7 extra inches

There are only two on the 737-700s, three on the 757-200s and 9 on the 757-300s.  The 737-800 and 737-900 planes will have 12 seats each in this configuration.  Not too bad, though most of these seats are likely to be filled with OnePass elite members.  Plus, I’m not really convinced that the exit row seats on the 737-800 and 737-900 planes really have 10″ of extra legroom.  I’ll be bringing my tape measure next time I’m on board.

The seats will be available for purchase starting on March 17, 2010 and will only be available at check-in, not in advance.

Of course, this does open the window for an Economy+ style operation similar to what United Airlines offers.  United’s E+ does not offer as much extra legroom as Continental is suggesting and it will be difficult for Continental to maintain this offering while increasing the number of seats available in this setup; their 10-12 inches minimum extra space would be very difficult to accomplish without removing a lot of other seats.  Still, the opportunity – and the billing infrastructure – will be in place.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.


  1. Will these seats be available to other Star Alliance gold status passengers?

  2. Nope. They’ll be free for UA 1P/1K/GS when reciprocity kicks in later this year but for all other *Gs they will be a paid upgrade, just like United does with E+.

  3. I loved American’s MRTC and gladly would have paid a bit more for more room. Alas, not everyone values space enough to pay for it. That’s why United’s approach with E is better and appears to be more (economically) successful. My hope is that Continental adopts a similar concept based on what they learn from UA in their new partnership.

  4. The twin-aisle narrow-body isn’t happening as long as airlines attempt to squeeze as many passengers as possible onto the plane. Giving up 16% of the seating capacity for the comfort of the passengers or the crew isn’t going to happen. AA tried MRTC, giving up much less capacity, and it was a commercial failure. I don’t see how the suggestions for twin-aisle narrowbody planes will be any different.

  5. Happy to join the discussion !
    Business simulation models in common use by airlines to assess alternative service strategies are not sufficiently elaborate to give proper account for all the economic intricacies of HQR or HP3 aircraft. Remember : after performing three daily return flights, the time saved (quicker ground rotations) will allow for ONE MORE FLIGHT, possibly two, boosting aircraft production/24h, raising revenue/24h. With higher ticket yield (better product, distinctly perceived), better cabin factor (better product, smaller module), less crew & depreciation costs (shorter leg time), less maintenance cost + less airport taxes (lighter aircraft), lower airport slot fees (shorter slot time), more cargo revenue (less luggage)… plus on top a significant aircraft purchase price discount : these variants weren’t planned neither by Boeing nor by Airbus, any incremental HQR/HP3 sales is bonanza, so logically they’d do the numbers in “marginal costing” ?!

  6. Airline and manufacturer planners alike need to reckon with the emergent countdown for a BAN BY FAA against installing triple seats squeezed against a wall panel in aircraft cabins. Such (ab)use of triples not only is unergonomic for the Flight Attendants and uncomfortable for the passengers, but UNSAFE (in an emergency event). Airworthiness certificates for installation of triple seats squeezed against the wall panel date back to the early 1950ies. In 2010, the concept – a typical PRODUCTION-ORIENTED one, to maximise n° of seats per sq.ft of available cabin floor area – is OBSOLETE, it is only a matter of time until FAA will say BASTA! : Gentlemen, from (deadline) onwards, triples/quadruples must be accessible from both ends, no seat shall be more than one seat off from the aisle ! When this happens, the HQR (1+3+1) concept is retrofittable, HP3 (1+2+2) is not. Planners need to anticipate or they’ll get trapped !

  7. Sorry, but I’m not buying the argument that the FAA, CAA, CASA or any other regulatory agency is going to bite on the concept that 3-3 seating is unsafe. With the very narrow aisles a 1-3-1 or 1-2-2 cannot be that much more effective for evacuating a plane and there’s no way the airlines will voluntarily agree to reduce the number of seats on their planes in that manner. Plus there is the issue of overhead space that wouldn’t work right.

    As long as the airline industry remains unregulated and carriers are forced to compete on price the holy grail will be yields, and high yields will come from squeezing ever more people into the same amount of space and eeking out incremental revenue for things like seat assignments, blankets and booze.

  8. OK, time will tell… but in the A320HQR or A320HP3 (with 146.4″ trim-to-trim cabin width at armrest level), the two aisles are both 19″, ie STANDARD WIDTH : 0.7″ + 63″ + 19″ + 63″ + 0.7″ = 146.4″ in the (3+3) layout is transformed into 0.7″ + 22″ + 19″ + 42.5″ + 19″ + 42.5″ + 0.7″ = 146.4″ in the (1+2+2) layout or 0.7″ + 22″ + 19″ + 63″ + 19″ + 22″ + 0.7″ = 146.4″ in the (1+3+1) layout. As you may see for yourself, all seats also are STANDARD WIDTH (18″, with armrests 2″, or 2.5″ when shared), so the statement about “very narrow aisles” doesn’t hold close scrutiny. Ditto for 737HQR.

  9. Sure, you can keep the aisle width if you’re willing to give up 17% of the seats on the plane in exchange. That’s not going to happen. Even Midwest Airlines which used to run an awesome config 2-2 on their MD88s finally gave up on the idea and crammed passengers in to make more money.

    There aren’t enough folks willing to pay for the extra room and certainly not enough willing to pay extra for the exact same amount of space with an extra aisle in the plane. It just isn’t that big a draw.

    And there are still the overhead bin/oxygen maks issues to figure out.

  10. Besides, for the operator, the key question to ask when evaluating a new business strategy is not “Will THEY make more money with their strategy than we will with ours ?” but rather “Can WE make money with our new strategy ?”. If the answer is “Yes, we can make money !” then the proposed new strategy gains its stand-alone resilience and can enter the competition for the passengers. If played, the market will be the Arbiter : here come into play such aspects as pax-appeal, userfriendliness, comfort, safety, Excuse-Me Factor, easy service, easy in, easy out… then you start gaining MARKET SHARE, winning customer preference, bingo!

  11. The Midwest story is interesting : they threw out one seat out of five, ie 20 %, in an aircraft with a built-in distinctly lower cost-efficiency than the 737NG/A320 money-spinners ?! Did they not move beyond the threshold of sustainability, starting to lose money ? Then, from five pax into the aisle per row at stand-up, they got four. With the HQR/HP3 you go down from 6 pax to 2.5 pax, improving aisle flow noticeably : the gamble is to win sufficient ground turn-around time in 24h to add on an extra flight. How did Midwest score on that picture ? Besides, the (2+2) seating in the MD80 is ostentatiously generous, to the extent that it may have backfired in the travellers ‘Product Quality’ perception, feeling they were paying for something they didn’t ask for ?!

  12. AA tried a much less generous offer (and lost much less capacity) with their MRTC product. It failed. They simply could not compete with other carriers who were selling a less appealing product at the same price. Or, put slightly differently, AA could not drive incremental revenue directly just by having the additional pitch as part of their offering.

    The ability today for customers to directly compare price on tickets for multiple carriers is unmatched since deregulation of the industry in the US. Combine that with the indisputable trend that passengers buy based on ticket price – at the initial point of purchase, not even considering the ancillary costs like snacks, checked bags, etc. – and there is not sufficient demand for a better or premium product at any incrementally higher price point for a carrier to survive based on that.

    Yes, the Midwest product was extremely generous, but it was marketed that way and passengers were unwilling to pay anything extra for it. Ditto for AA’s MRTC product. United has generated revenue (no idea if it is profitable, but definitely a lot of revenue) with their Economy Plus product. That works for them because it is an incremental buy-up after the regular ticket purchase. Such a scheme wouldn’t work with the QHR/HP3 arrangement because it doesn’t map throughout the cabin (i.e. part of the cabin cannot have two aisles and part only one.

    If the profitability point for the new designs is really the idea that you can get an extra turn out of the plane in a day then the it is going to be even harder to accomplish. Why? Because an extra turn costs money in terms of crews, landing slots and maintenance, among other things. So extracting sufficient additional revenue out of that last turn to offset the 17% loss of seats is going to be a virtually impossible task.

    I get that turn time matters. Just ask the European LCCs why they use a narrower seat in favor of a wider aisle. But even reducing turn time enough to get an extra segment on a plane in a 24 hour window doesn’t mean it will be profitable to add that segment and it certainly doesn’t help the carrier draw sufficient revenue to offset the 17% drop in capacity on the plane.

  13. Fair enough, Wandering Aramean ! Let’s leave the matter for a while to your other bloggers’ appraisal, shall we ? Meanwhile, moving positively in the direction of your comments, let’s consider the FUSELAGE STRETCH avenue : whilst a stretch of the A321 (I don’t know about the feasibility of stretching the 737NG-900, I believe it can’t be done due to a shorter undercarriage) is feasible, it is not offered by Airbus in the (3+3) standard version, because of the (costly!) need to revise the aerodynamic surfaces to cope with the extra weights. Also, because of the “757 syndrome” (string of inflight service and ground rotation inefficiencies, already present with the A321). But an A322HQR or A322HP3 would compete DIRECTLY with the standard A321 (3+3) in SMC, whilst making perfect sense technically, trading in the lower payload for fuselage structure. Are we in business, Wandering Aramean ?

  14. I fully agree that the HP3/HQR concepts can only be implemented when mapping the full fuselage length with twin aisle, ie there is no room anymore for (2+3) BC, neither for (2+2) FC, but anyway, those offers are ostentatious in a SMR feeder context, which is what we’re talking about for 737NG/A320 series aircraft. Instead, you may apply “flexcabin” differentiation, with better pitch + extra service upgrade fwd in BC, a moving curtain cabin divider, and 29″ pitch aft in Y-class ?

  15. Wandering Aramean : We’ve exchanged views, yet at this point we can only agree that we differ in opinion, which scores to poor salesmanship on my behalf, ie my arguments are not carrying across to you.

    I’ll endeavour to be more convincing :

    1. For the OHSC (overhead stowage compartments), I want you to be comfortable with the idea that Boeing/Airbus employ the world’s best aircraft Cabin Interior Designers and Architects.
    Obviously, a redesign of the contours of the OHSC is required (e.g. in the HP3 (1+2+2), you get an all-new central OHSC), the PSUs, the electrical connectors, the airconditioning ducts & vents, the IFEC wiring… all need to be relocated, agreed, but please bear with me when I propose that these issues can and will be solved to full satisfaction.
    2. For the HEAD CLEARANCE, this will be taken into account when redesigning those contours. Two situations arise : (1) need for head clearance vs PASSENGERS at boarding/deplaning (NB : density is now 2.5 pax/aisle per seat row instead of six) and (2) need for head clearance vs Flight Attendants when active during in-flight service. It is commonplace knowledge that recruiters center on FAs of +1m73 heigth, preferably 1m75 : “beauty is what we’re looking for” is what the female candidates are being told. Only ruffians explain that the job really requires a kind of “worksite crane” capable to efficiently and neatly deliver and retrieve the trays to the outer seats in the triples, 52″ off the aisle centerline. But here we have done away with those outer seats in triples, we have 4 aisle seats and one “one-off” seat. FAs may be recruited on different criteria, and believe me, WA : beauties of 1m68-1m72 are equally willing to perform as Air Hostesses ! Not that FA recruitment rules need to be revised, but, on the whole, HQR/HP3 do take off the pressure on head clearance vs OHSC, so again, please bear with me that the issue can and will be solved to full satisfaction.
    3. Your point about the fewer seats obviously scores, but I shall try to convince you that the picture really isn’t all that negative :
    a) customers are divided in A-B-C groups : those that need to – and will – depart on that city-pair at that time at “any” cost, those who will agree to change the routing for a better deal, and those who wouldn’t fly at all if not for a very special bargain…
    b) for any departure, you have a gauss-curve defining the probability of the number of candidate travellers in each group.
    c) your business (your revenue) is not defined by the number of seats you offer, but by the average income from the number of passengers you actually carry, ie the number of tickets you sold.
    d) if you’re serving a market with a strong gauss-curve with a smaller module, you get a higher cabin load factor, all the way up to 100 % in the best case. NB : (the easy-access HQR/HP3 will allow to accomodate more “last-minute” passengers !).
    e) with HQR/HP3 you have a clearly differentiated quality product, which will attract a better portion of Type A passengers (Frequent Travellers, business pendlers…), your average ticket yield WILL IMPROVE throughout the day.
    f) on Rush Hour departures, your cabin is full up with Type A.
    g) agreed, you’ll get less of … Type C customers, who hardly contribute.

    Conclusion : in terms of total revenue, you’ll be fine. Remember, you’re not trying to “make more money than your next door competitor”, what you’re going for is to break even or make some money. If you’re making money, you’re in business to stay and you can compete for the passengers, add on more frequencies, pick up more market share… bingo !

    If you sold average 128 tickets/flight before with the A321 (3+3) and if you’re still selling 128/flight now with the HQR/HP3, you’ll be better off. If you’re only selling average – say – 122 tickets, ie – say – six less, then the question is : what is your average NET income per ticket ? Remember : you’re rotating much faster on ground, your aircraft is lighter, so the leg-costs are cheaper, it takes less costs to generate the revenue you’re getting.

    If we were students, we’d line up the full set of equations of air transport economics, to simulate the results for a fleet of 100 HQR/HP3 aircraft… I’d rather rely on a charismatic Stelios, Herb, Richard (or Janne !) – in one encompassing “vision” – to intuitively grasp the full picture !

  16. As for the SAFETY issue, all I’d say is that if you need to move quickly out from your seat down the aisle to the mid-cabin overwing emergency exit(s), I’d rather (1) be in an aircraft with twin aisles and a pax density of 2.5 pax/4.22 sq.ft (32″ x 19″) in each aisle than in a single aisle aircraft with a pax density of 6 pax for the same 4.22 sq.ft; and (2) be seated one seat off the aisle or at the very aisle seat, rather than squeezed against the wall panel in the outer LHS or RHS seat of a triple, if hindered by eg one overweight passenger seated next to me in the middle seat and/or one oversize passenger seated in the aisle seat, specially if both these prove to be injured or inconscious and I have to climb over them to get out, when fire is on, ligths are off and thick toxic smoke is fusing from all over the place …

  17. By the way, coming back to the FC offer issue, in the HQR variants (737H or A320H Series), you still retain the possibility to offer (1+2+1) in FC, which by the way is a layout recommended by Airbus for their FWD UPSTAIRS FC location in the A380; the result is very attractive indeed !! You may ask Airbus for the details ?!

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