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Alaska Airlines To Experiment With Premium Economy Seating

Alaska Airlines
Alaska Airlines announced a 67 percent increase in net income in the first quarter of 2015.

Starting next month, Alaska Airlines will explore charging extra for main cabin seats with more legroom and creature comforts.

The Seattle-based airline has been one of the last holdouts in the domestic airline industry without a premium economy class.

What the airline calls "preferred seating" includes about seven to eight inches more legroom, a free drink and priority boarding. Elite members of Alaska's frequent flier program will still get first dibs on the premium seats at no charge. The remainder of the extra legroom seats will be offered for sale at check-in for an extra fee that varies depending on the length of the flight.

Alaska Airlines Chief Revenue Officer Andrew Harrison said the new offering will not require any reconfiguration of the carrier's Boeing 737 jets.

"We will be selling our exit rows and bulkhead rows," Harrison said during the company's first quarter earnings conference call on Thursday.

"It's a step into this area. It's not huge. It's only three rows or so," Harrison added. "We continue to look at this. If we get good uptake, we might expand this."

Harrison said seats on Alaska Airlines' sister carrier Horizon Air will not be included in the mid-May rollout.

The premium economy product varies considerably among carriers. Sometimes the only benefit for upgrading to premium economy is more legroom. Depending on the carrier, the seat may also come with a free meal, a free checked bag or priority boarding.

Travel industry consultant Steve Danishek of Seattle said stratifying the cabin has generated significant new revenue for Alaska's competitors. He said he'd try it on a long flight to Hawaii, for example.

"The rates they are indicating now -- $15 to $50 -- are lower than comparable rates on other carriers,” Danishek said. “So it is kind of a discount to see how it works. It will be interesting to see how they work."

Most of Alaska's competitors -- including United, Delta and American -- segment their main cabins to extract more revenue from passengers.

As it is, Alaska Airlines is raking in record profits. Thursday morning, Alaska Air Group announced a 67 percent increase in net income in the first quarter compared to the same period last year.

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.