Economy class gets an upgrade – or is it a downgrade?

The lowly economy-class section is getting an upgrade in 2015. Or a downgrade, depending on your point of view.

At least two airlines are unveiling new coach class sections this spring. Alaska Airlines, with its Alaska Beyond service, will add custom leather seats, roomier overhead bins and new in-flight entertainment options. And Delta Air Lines, which is also in the throes of an ambitious cabin overhaul, will introduce a new basic economy-class fare, creating what some are calling a “fifth class” of service.

Economy class — the cabin most airline passengers fly in — rarely gets this much attention. Airlines prefer to focus on their high-revenue business travelers, lavishing them with repeated remodelings of their first-class cabins. So when the cheap seats get a makeover, it’s easy to assume that’s good news for the average air traveler.

But not all upgrades are the same. In fact, Alaska’s and Delta’s are worth closer looks, because they offer dramatically different visions of air travel in 2015.

Delta’s changes are the most sweeping. The airline is quietly redefining “economy class.” On the visual side, its economy section will come with distinctive new seats, wireless Internet access and, in some cases, larger overhead bins — all part of a billion-dollar update of its cabin interiors.

But its economy-class fares are undergoing an overhaul, too. Delta’s new basic economy-class tickets are highly restrictive, a departure from its standard economy tickets, which it will continue to offer on its flights. No changes, refunds or upgrades will be allowed on these new fares, nor can you make advance seat reservations. Delta introduced these fares as an experiment in certain markets in 2012 and decided to expand them late last year.

Delta’s basic tickets are the same E-class fares that a decade ago came with a seat assignment, two checked bags and the ability to change a reservation. The airline didn’t discount the tickets in exchange for the new restrictions. Instead, it asked customers whether they would be willing to accept that same E fare with new limits, and enough passengers said yes.

The discount on a basic fare can be significant. An advance-purchase, round-trip flight from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to Detroit in January cost $206 in basic and $246 in regular economy class.

“The basic economy fare is competitive with other carriers,” says Delta spokesman Paul Skrbec. “But it’s on the back of a very solid core economy product.”

By “other carriers,” he means budget airlines such as Allegiant and Spirit, known for their tight legroom and abundance of fees. Observers fear that over time, Delta could segment its basic customers in their own cabin with even less legroom and personal space. Skrbec says Delta has no such plans.

Harlan Platt, a finance professor at Northeastern University, says that, from a customer-experience point of view, the Delta remodeling is largely “cosmetic.”

“They fail to touch on the big three concerns of most passengers: legroom, access to bins, and fair prices and fees,” he says. “Like most oligopolistic industries, this is what we can expect in the future.”

Maybe, maybe not.

Across the country, in Seattle, Alaska Airlines is also working on its new economy-class section. From a distance, the improvements look similar to Delta’s — a better seat (in this case, an adjustable leather seat made by Recaro, an award-winning aircraft seat designer) plus power outlets in every seat back. Alaska has also overhauled its menu, offering entrees created by some of the Northwest’s best-known chefs.

Alaska addresses at least one of the passenger concerns cited by Platt more overtly. Later this year, some of its new aircraft will have Boeing’s “innovative” space bins, which offer 45 percent more room. The seats will be about the same size as the previous economy seats, offering between 31 and 32 inches of seat pitch — a rough industry measure of legroom. That’s about three inches less than the basic economy-class seat had before airline deregulation in 1978.

Perhaps the most significant part of Alaska Airlines’ overhaul is what it didn’t do. It did not announce plans to change the way it segments customers. It doesn’t charge economy-class passengers for advance seat reservations, and if you cancel a ticket 60 days before your flight, it charges no fees. (After that, it’s $125, compared to the $200 charged by most large airlines.)

“We’re harnessing all the things our customers say make us Alaska, and making the amenities available to all customers — not just a certain section or segment of customer,” says Halley Knigge, an airline spokeswoman.

In other words, these economy-class changes might look similar, but they are not the same. One reinforces the traditional concept of coach class — that no matter where you sit on a plane, you can expect a minimum level of service and amenities. The other reduces the air travel experience to a use-it-or-lose-it ticket, critics say.

Which vision will win? That’s not a hard question to answer. Air travelers tend to reflexively book the lowest fare without considering the consequences. Delta said it did not conduct any focus groups and that its customers didn’t directly ask for a more restrictive economy-class ticket. Rather, it offered the tickets and people bought them, which the airline says proves consumers want them.

That kind of market research is unlikely to improve the flying experience, says Jono Anderson, aviation expert at the global consulting firm Strategy&. Airlines are making too many guesses and assumptions rather than using advanced analytics and actual customer feedback to make decisions about their products. “They need to know their customers better,” he says.

Until then, you should get to know your economy-class section better. Sites like, which gauge a flight’s “agony,” or, which displays flights based on comfort, can separate the most miserable economy-class experiences from the rest. Delta’s new basic restrictions are also clearly disclosed when you book through the airline’s Web site. But now more than ever, you need to pay attention — especially if you’re flying in economy class.

Is economy class travel getting better?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...

Underwritten by

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by

With nearly 20 years in the industry, over 128 airport covered in the U.S. and Canada, and over 1,000 Hotel and Parking Partners-we provide travelers the best options on how to get to the airport when flying. Whether you want to; drive yourself and park near an Airport (Airport Parking), stay the night before your flight at an airport hotel and leave your car (Hotel and Parking Package), or take a shared Shuttle/Private Car/Limo to the Airport- we got you covered. The best deals can be found online, and booking a reservation has never been easier. You can explore all of our options by visiting us at,,, and

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Generali Global Assistance

Generali Global Assistance has been a leading provider of travel insurance and other assistance services for more than 25 years. We offer a full suite of innovative, vertically integrated travel insurance and emergency services. Generali Global Assistance is part of The Europ Assistance (EA) Group, who pioneered the travel assistance industry in 1963 and continues to be the leader in providing real-time assistance anywhere in the world, delivering on our motto – You Live, We Care.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Seven Corners

Seven Corners has helped customers all over the world with travel difficulties, big and small. As one of the few remaining privately owned travel insurance companies, Seven Corners provides insurance plans and 24/7 travel assistance services to more than a million people each year. Because we’re privately held, we can focus on the customer without the constraints that larger companies have. Visit Seven Corners to learn more.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Sodexo North America

Sodexo North America Sodexo North America is part of a global, Fortune 500 company with a presence in 80 countries. Sodexo is a leading provider of integrated food, facilities management and other services that enhance organizational performance, contribute to local communities and improve quality of life for millions of customers in corporate, education, healthcare, senior living, sports and leisure, government and other environments daily. Learn more at

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travelex Insurance Services

Travelex Insurance Services is a leading travel insurance provider in the United States with over 55 years combined industry expertise of helping people dream, explore and travel with confidence. We offer comprehensive travel insurance plans with optional upgrades allowing travelers to customize the plans to fit their needs. Compare plans, get a quote and buy online at

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by AirHelp

AirHelp is the world’s leading flight delays compensation company, helping passengers apply for compensation following a delayed or canceled flight or when boarding has been denied. It is AirHelp’s mission to fight for passenger rights by holding airlines accountable for flights disruptions that are out of passengers’ control. AirHelp has already helped 5 million people, taking the stress out of applying for compensation and making it as hassle-free as possible for travelers around the world.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Allianz Travel Insurance

The Allianz Travel Insurance company has built its reputation on partnering with agents all around the world to provide comprehensive travel insurance for their clients. Contact Allianz Travel Insurance for a comprehensive list of coverage.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Chubb

Chubb is the world’s largest publicly traded property and casualty insurance company, and recognized as the premier provider of insurance for successful individuals and families in the U.S. and selected international markets, offering coverage for high-value automobile, homeowners, recreational marine/aviation, valuables and umbrella liability coverage. As an underwriting company, Chubb assesses, assumes and manages risk with insight and discipline, and combines the precision of craftsmanship with decades of experience to conceive, craft and deliver the best insurance coverage and services to individuals, families and business of all size.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Fareportal

Fareportal’s portfolio of brands, which include  CheapOair and  OneTravel, are dedicated to helping customers enjoy their trip. Whether you want to call, click, or use one of our travel apps, one thing is clear: We make it easy to take it easy.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by

An independent provider of low cost CDW/LDW insurance for use with rental cars. Up to $100,000 cover with no deductible. Policies available on a per day, per trip or per year basis. Also works with overseas rentals. Try  Insuremyrentalcar.comnow.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by

Since its inception over three decades ago, G1G has continued to revolutionize the travel insurance industry by being the only aggregator to operate a customer portal, placing all of the user's primary needs in one place. We have continued to innovate and disrupt the market by reimagining the way travel insurance can be delivered to the end user in ways no competition can. Simply put, no one knows the market as well as its founders and no one else shares G1G values and mission.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Mediacom Communications

The nation’s fifth-largest cable operator, serving the smaller cities and towns in the Midwest and Southern regions of the United States. We are a high-performance broadband, entertainment, and communications company that brings the power of modern technology and quality customer experience to life inside the connected home by combining ultra-fast gigabit speeds with personalized local and over-the-top entertainment choices that fit your lifestyle. Details at

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Arch RoamRight

Arch RoamRight is one of the fastest growing, most-highly rated travel insurance companies in the United States. Travel advisors love working with us, and travelers feel protected with our trip cancellation and travel medical insurance coverage. We also make it easy to file a claim online with our fast, paperless claims website. Learn more about RoamRight travel insurance.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Virtuoso

The leading global network for luxury and experiential travel. This invitation-only organization comprises over 1,000 travel agency locations with 17,500 advisors in over 45 countries, and holds preferred relationships with 1,700 of the world’s finest travel companies. Virtuoso advisors collaborate with their clients to create personalized itineraries featuring exclusive perks, while also providing advice, access, advocacy, and accountability. For more information, visit

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by VisitorsCoverage

VisitorsCoverage is one of the world’s most trusted providers of travel insurance for millions of global travelers in over 175 countries. Working with top-rated travel insurance partner providers, VisitorsCoverage’s award-winning search, compare and purchase technology simplifies the travel insurance process and finds the best deals for the coverage you need to explore the world with confidence. Get insurance for your next trip at VisitorsCoverage.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by MedjetAssist

Medjet is the premier global air-medical transport, travel security and crisis response membership program for travelers. With a MedjetAssist membership, if you become hospitalized more than 150 miles from home, we will get you from that unfamiliar hospital all the way home to the hospital you trust. All you ever pay is your membership fee. MedjetHorizon members add 24/7 personal security and crisis response benefits. readers enjoy discounted rates. Travel safer with  MedjetAssist.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Southwest Airlines

The mission of Southwest Airlines is dedication to the highest quality of Customer Service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and Company Spirit. We are committed to provide our Employees a stable work environment with equal opportunity for learning and personal growth.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by makes it fast and easy to compare and buy travel insurance online from top rated providers. Our unbiased comparison engine allows travelers to read reviews, compare pricing and benefits and buy the right policy with a price guarantee, every time. Compare and buy travel insurance now at

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Squaremouth

Squaremouth helps travelers easily and instantly compare travel insurance policies from all major providers. Only companies that meet the strict requirements of Squaremouth’s Zero Complaint Guarantee are available on the website. Compare policies on to save over 70 percent on your next purchase.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travel Leaders Group

Travel Leaders Group is transforming travel through its progressive approach toward each unique travel experience. Travel Leaders Group assists millions of travelers through its leisure, business and network travel operations under a variety of diversified divisions and brands including All Aboard Travel, Andrew Harper Travel, Colletts Travel, Corporate Travel Services, CruCon Cruise Outlet, Cruise Specialists, Nexion, Protravel International,, Travel Leaders Corporate, Travel Leaders Network and Tzell Travel Group, and its merger with ALTOUR. With more than 7,000 agency locations and 52,000 travel advisors, Travel Leaders Group ranks as one of the industry’s largest retail travel agency companies.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travelers United

If you’ve been mistreated by the airlines, Travelers United is your voice in Washington. Join the #1 travel advocacy organization working with Congress to improve and protect travelers. Plus, get $400 of annual benefits you can use for travel for only $29/year. Add your voice to ours. Make travel better.  Join today.

Send this to a friend