- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Northwest Airlines has started charging passengers $15 extra if they want a seat with extra space.

As of yesterday, travelers can reserve an aisle or emergency-exit-row seat if they want to stretch out their legs.

Northwest spokesman Kurt Ebenhoch said that out of the 160 seats on a Boeing 747, a total of 10 will be available for an additional fee.

Frequent fliers will be able to reserve one of the seats beginning 36 hours before takeoff. Other Northwest customers will be able to reserve one of the seats 24 hours before their flight.

“The competitive landscape has changed in the industry,” Mr. Ebenhoch said. “Our competitors are generating revenue this way. We’re going to test it and see where we are later on and what sort of reaction it gets.”

Virgin Atlantic charges $75 for an emergency row seat on a trans-Atlantic flight although the upgrade must be purchased at the airport and the seats are not reserved ahead of time.

United Airlines has a separate, more expensive section called Economy Plus that offers travelers more room.

Northwest, the nation’s fourth-largest airline, has been operating under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection since September.

Terry Trippler, an airline expert at Cheapseats.com, an online travel site, said the consumer reaction will be largely positive.

“There are enough people who are going to be so excited that it’s going to be very successful,” Mr. Trippler said. “I think it was a very good move on Northwest’s part.”

Although Mr. Trippler said he thinks other airlines will adopt similar policies, Gina Laughlin, a Delta Air Lines spokeswoman, said her carrier does not intend to follow suit.

A spokeswoman for Continental Airlines declined to comment on whether that carrier was considering a similar policy.

Mr. Trippler believes that Northwest’s “a la carte” seating reservations are just one of the many new airline fees that are likely this year.

“I think that charging for soda, juice and bottled water is just a given,” he said. “The controversy will be charging to check baggage, but I think it’s coming.”

After the 2001 terrorist attacks, many financially strapped airlines dropped meals in coach and took other steps to save money, including recently beginning to charge for skycap services at the airport.

In January 2003, Northwest started a test for selling meals on board. Now, flight attendants sell snack boxes and sandwiches on domestic flights. Northwest got rid of free pretzels and does not supply pillows in coach on most domestic flights.

Mr. Ebenhoch said that Northwest does not plan to institute any other fees.

Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, said Northwest’s policy will generally benefit business travelers. Mr. Mitchell agrees that more fees are likely in the future, but warns that the airline industry will be taking a risk in doing so.

“There’s going to be more of this,” he said. “The airlines will walk a very careful line because there’s a difference between selling added value and the perception of nickel and diming.”

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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