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ATA Boosts Low-Fare Business Class

The News

What’s this?

This Travel Feature is courtesy of Ed Perkins’ companion website to his new book, “Business Travel: When It’s Your Money.” For more articles and information like this, visit his site,, or purchase a copy of his book.

ATA Airlines announced it would install 12 business-class seats on each plane in its mainline fleet. Seating in ATA’s 737s and 757s will be like first class on the legacy lines—four abreast, with pitch (front-to-rear spacing of seat rows) of 37 to 40 inches. (“Legacy lines” is the term the industry uses these days for American, Continental, Delta, Northwest, United, and US Airways.) Beverage and food service will be included.

One-way fares within the continental U.S. will be capped at $399 each way, with lower fares on many flights. Fares from the mainland to Hawaii will be comparable. If you’re willing to roll the dice, you can fly in business class for even less by reserving in coach and trying for a space-available upgrade at the airport (exact charges not yet announced).

Seat installation will begin in August and should be completed in November; business-class seats will go on sale sometime this summer. Reserve and buy tickets through, any online ticket agency site, any travel agency, or by calling 800-435-9282. Check ATA’s website for updates on its business-class program.

Competitive response

ATA isn’t the first low-fare line to offer business class. AirTran and Spirit already have similarly priced premium services. But ATA, with its extensive transcontinental and Chicago services, is arguably the most important low-fare line to introduce low-cost business class so far.

Alaska and America West have cut first-class fares systemwide. But their first-class fares are higher than those proposed by ATA. First-class round-trips from Seattle to New York, for example, are currently $998 on America West (highly restricted), or $1,117 on Alaska.

Travelers who buy expensive coach tickets on some legacy lines now get automatic upgrades to first class. And some legacy lines are matching (or nearly matching) business-class fares on low-fare lines by reducing their own first-class fares, at least where they compete directly (although I haven’t yet found any of those deals on the legacy lines’ websites).

AirTran, ATA, and Spirit will undoubtedly continue to expand into new routes, offering inexpensive business fares wherever they go (except on regional-jet flights). Presumably, some of the legacy lines will match those lines on routes where they compete directly.

Other low-fare airlines may also pick up on the idea. It’s hard to see how Frontier, for one, can avoid thinking about business class, especially since Ted is offering United’s premium economy to elite frequent flyers and travelers on expensive tickets, even though United’s product falls far short of true business class. Even more intriguing is the possibility that JetBlue might join the fray—although that’s a long-odds bet right now.

What it means

ATA’s move is very good news for any business traveler interested in a comfortable seat at a reasonable price. On many—if not most—ATA routes, the unrestricted business-class fare will beat the typical coach fares that are typically purchased by business travelers on legacy lines.

And ATA’s business class will be a far better product, with lots more room, separate check-in lines, and the other amenities legacy lines offer only in first class. The plain fact is that there is nothing—repeat, nothing—a legacy line can do to provide a truly adequate business-travel product based on six-abreast seating in A319s to 320s or in the even narrower 737s and 757s, or on equivalent seating on wide-body planes. According to recent anthropometric data on American men, each seat needs to be three to four inches wider to avoid unacceptable crowding in a full plane. And we’ve all experienced the inadequate legroom in almost all legacy-line coach cabins. For a business traveler with the discretion to choose his or her own airline, ATA’s business class will be a no-brainer.

Overall, I expect that legacy-line frequent flyer programs will become less important, especially for those of you who use your miles mainly for upgrades. Once you can buy a confirmed premium seat for the same price that you’d normally pay for an upgradeable coach ticket, you can forget about the upgrade lottery at the departure gate or even sweating out possible upgrades 24 or 48 hours in advance. Also, when the legacy lines cut first-class fares to match low-fare competition, they’ll probably have few, if any, upgrades left for travelers on coach tickets.

Those of you who work for a small business or are on your own will be the main beneficiaries. Presumably, you have the flexibility to select whichever airline you want, as long as the price is reasonable, so you’re free to desert your usual legacy line in favor of a low-fare business-class option.

Travelers from big companies are more likely to be locked into the legacy line(s) with which the company has a contract. However, it doesn’t hurt to ask. And maybe somewhere, somehow, some big company exec is going to say, “enough, already, with the cattle car,” and demand an adequate coach product for his or her travelers. Not expensive first class, just a decent alternative to today’s coach. ATA, AirTran, and Spirit will be ready.

Making the deal

Given the wretched standards of today’s legacy-line coach product, low-fare business class is a very attractive option for business travelers. For many—perhaps most—of you, avoiding the cattle car of regular coach is a major goal. Thus, your buying strategy will likely be determined by how well you’re now doing:

  1. If you already get upgrades on most flights on your legacy line, either because of your exalted frequent flyer status, your corporate contract, or your legacy line’s upgrade policy, stick with that legacy line—and consider yourself blessed.
  2. But if you find yourself scrunched into a tiny seat in the rear cabin most of the time, figure on shifting as much of your business as you can to a premium option on a low-fare line. Check to see if AirTran, ATA, or Spirit serve the route you’re taking and, if so, how much you’d have to pay for a business-class ticket. If not, look at feasible alternative airports at either end of your trip, and check the schedules. Determine how much you’d pay for your “usual” coach ticket—one that conforms to your itinerary and flexibility needs. Select your best option, based on any fare and schedule trade-offs that might apply. If the question is even close, by all means opt for the premium seat.
  3. And, if necessary, make a big fuss to management to cover the modest additional cost.

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