Not First Class or Coach: the New Virtual Class

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No one is ever going to mistake me for Conan the Barbarian but I am a pretty big guy and when I had to fly coach to New York this past weekend, I requested an upgrade so I wouldn't be twisting myself into a pretzel in a vain effort to get comfortable. I didn't get the upgrade, but the flight never happened, either (thanks a lot, Irene).

If only there was an alternative to paying big bucks for business class or those roomier coach seats snapped up by elite fliers. Wait, there is. A newly added "virtual" cabin class that falls somewhere between the herd and the lead ponies. Warning: it used to be free but now it'll cost you, though not too much.

Let's see if your airline has this new class, which I call "merchandised" economy. It provides little comforts like a few extra inches to stretch out on in the bulk head seats or exit rows or near the front of the cabin for quick boarding and fast exits, and on a cross-country jaunt or a flight across the ocean, believe me, size and speed does matter.

For more travel news and insights view Rick's blog at farecompare.com

Do we need another cabin class? We already have first, business and coach, and now on a handful of airlines, premium economy. And while I'm sure some airlines would happily strap passengers to the wings if they could, so far they've restrained themselves (although Europe's Ryanair keeps talking about pay toilets on planes, so we shall see). But merchandised economy seems here to stay.

What you get varies from airline to airline; some offer actual cabin/section differences while others offer better seat location but basically coach passengers get something more, either in the way of legroom, better seat selection, earlier boarding and sometimes, all of the above. Cynics call it just another way for the airlines to make a buck off us, as indeed it is, but is it worth it? You tell me.

Here are some of the offerings you'll find in premium/merchandised economy, but before you make your purchase, check with SeatGuru.com so you can see what you're getting (and see if in fact the aircraft you'll be flying actually offers this service).

American Airlines: Your Choice Preferred Seats What it is: Window and aisle seats toward the front of the cabin. What it costs: Starts at $4 each-way; free to elite miles members, active military and full fare coach passengers (note: not to be confused with Preferred Plus Seats which are available for free to elite miles members 330 days before departure). How to get this: American's website, the airline's reservation phone, and at the airport kiosks 24 hours before departure.

Delta Air Lines: Economy Comfort What it is: For most long-haul international flights only, early boarding plus roomier seats that recline more than standard economy seats and give you "up to four inches additional legroom". Include free alcoholic drinks, too. What it costs: Prices vary (in spring 2011, it cost $80-$160 each-way); complimentary for elite miles members and Y, B and M class fares. How to get this: Through the airline's online site, phone reservations or airport kiosks.

Frontier Airlines: Stretch Seating What it is: Up to 5 extra inches of legroom in the front rows of 170 aircraft. What it costs: Starts at $5 each-way, free to elite miles members. How to get this: Can be purchased online when booking (if available) or during online check-in, at airport kiosks and even onboard the aircraft if any of these seats are left.

Hawaiian Airlines: Preferred Seats What it is: Certain bulkhead and exit row seats, plus early boarding and a headset; available only on flights within the U.S. or between Hawaii and the mainland. What it costs: $25 each-way; complimentary to some elite members. How to get this: Available 24 hours before departure on the airline's website, airport kiosk or ticket counter, or at the gate; first come, first served.

JetBlue Airways: Even More Space What it is: More spacious seats in the front of the cabin and exit rows, plus early boarding. What it costs: $10-$65 each-way, depending on route. How to get this: Can be purchased on the airline's website during booking or check-in.

Southwest Airlines: EarlyBird Check-In What is it: A better boarding position which means a better shot at an aisle or window on this "no reserved seating" airline. What it costs: $10 each-way; free to Business Select and elite miles members. How to get this: Available only on Southwest.com when you book your flight.

Spirit Airlines: Big Front Seats What it is: Wider seats in the front of the aircraft with more legroom in a 2X2 configuration; not available on all planes. What it costs: Varies from $12 to $199 per seat depending on route and whether seat is reserved in advance. How to get this: Purchase during or after booking; not available for purchase with miles.

United/Continental Airlines: Economy Plus Seating What it is: Seats with up to 5 inches of extra near the front of the economy cabin; available on all United aircraft and some United Express carriers. The program will be expanded to Continental in 2012. What it costs: Starts at $9 each-way or you can purchase a year's worth of Economy Plus for $425; free to elite miles members. How to get this: Purchase online when booking your ticket or at airport counters, kiosks and gates.

US Airways: ChoiceSeats What it is: Same amount of legroom but toward the front of the cabin; includes earlier boarding; available on all flights except US Airways Shuttle. What it costs: Prices vary depending on length of flight, time of flight and destination; free to elite miles members. How to get this: Available on the airline website or reservations phone from booking through check-in; also available at the airport.

Virgin America: Main Cabin Select What it is: 6 more inches of legroom than main cabin plus priority check-in; free food and drink, too. What it costs: $39, $69 or $129 depending on whether it's a short, medium or long haul flight. How to get this: Book online at up to 24 hours before departure or at the airport or even onboard the plane if available; you can pay a fee to upgrade to First Class as well, up to 6 hours before departure.

Is it worth it? Depends on your tolerance for having someone's coach class seatback in your face (I can cope for a couple of hours, but draw the line at international flights). Check with friends and colleagues to see if they think merchandised or premium economy is a good value or visit your favorite travel chat site (I love the discussions on FlyerTalk). Try a test run; I recommend an outing on a short hop so you won't be spending too much in case it's a dud.

Unfortunately, there is some bad news for business travelers: according to a new survey on corporate travel from the Global Business Travel Association (GBTA), only 13 percent of business travel managers will reimburse employees for preferred seating fees. However, 21 percent will reimburse you for using your hotel's fitness center while only 9 percent will pay you back for availing yourself of the room's mini-bar. Apparently managers like their people sober and agile but not too comfortable.

If you require more comfort, consider opening up your wallet. You might just find the new virtual class is one fee worth paying.

Related links:

Hurricane Irene Farecompare Update

New Airline Fees? Pros and Cons of Separate Seating for Adults, Screaming Kids, Pets

SeatGuru class comparison

American Airlines

Delta Airlines

Frontier Airlines

Hawaiian Airlines

JetBlue Airlines

Southwest Airlines

Spirit Airlines

United Airlines

US Airways

Virgin America Airlines

This work is the opinion of the columnist and does not reflect the opinion of ABC News.

Rick Seaney is one of the country's leading experts on airfare, giving interviews and analysis to news organizations that include ABC News, The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Reuters, the Associated Press and Bloomberg. His website, FareCompare.com, offers consumers free, new-generation software, combined with expert insider tips to find the best airline ticket deals.

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