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The Cheap Seats: First Class for Less

September 22, 2003 -- Flying up front doesn't have to mean blowing your budget. Back in July, we wrote about how to get into business class on most airlines. But three airlines have even better offers, with business-class quality on domestic flights at coach-class prices. Spirit, AirTran and America West all have great deals for budget travelers who want to do some business in the air or who just find regular coach-class seats too cramped.

Spirit's Spirit Plus service (www.spiritair.com) costs $40 more per leg than standard coach fares, though they may seem more expensive when Spirit has a sale going on. I recently got a chance to fly in Spirit Plus from Los Angeles to New York via Detroit (courtesy of Spirit), and I was impressed. Two-by-two seats with 36 inches of legroom gave me plenty of space to open my laptop and get down to work. On my flight from LA to Detroit, I got a pre-flight drink and unlimited in-flight booze; on both flights I got a free "snack pack" of cookies, crackers and cheese spread, which wasn't quite a meal, but was welcome nonetheless.

Spirit Plus also offers priority boarding, but I found that to be less useful. Like all airlines, Spirit boards families with small children first. There were so many families on my Spirit flight that the Spirit Plus passengers ended up nowhere near the front of the line.

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The big airlines' first-class services don't have to worry about competition from Spirit, which advertises Spirit Plus as "enhanced coach." My tray table was grimy, and there are no power ports, no entertainment, no real food and you get no frequent flier miles. But for small businesspeople who need room for laptops, big folks who need big seats, or just people who want to fly a bit more comfortably, it's a great option.

AirTran's business class service is similar to Spirit Plus. For $35 per segment over the full one-way fare ($50 for flights to Las Vegas and Los Angeles), you get two-by-two seating, 40 inches of leg room, two free alcoholic drinks and snacks. Even better, they'll let you upgrade from discounted fares on the day of your flight, for $35 per segment, if space is available. For more information, see www.airtran.com/info/bclass/index.jsp.

America West's "Go First Class" program lets you upgrade any seat to first class starting four hours before your flight, for between $50-150 per flight segment. About 15% of the airline's first-class seats are sold this way, says Anthony Mule, America West's senior vice president of customer service.

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The trick with "Go First Class" is that the seats may not be available, Mule says. Elite level frequent fliers get the first crack at upgrades, and "Go First Class" gets whatever's left. That may be many seats, only a few, or none. If you're interested in bumping yourself up, show up at the airport early (most America West ticket counters are open four hours before most flights) and ask at the ticket counter.

For your money, you get leather seats in a two-by-two arrangement, with 20% more width and legroom than coach-class seats. (That translates to 38 or 39 inches of seat pitch.) You get priority boarding, more overhead baggage space per person, free drinks and better food than the plebes in the back get.

Mule says the program is tremendously successful: "The fact that we're selling north of 90% of available seats on the day of travel would suggest that our consumer really likes the product we've got," he says. If you're interested, go to www.americawest.com/services/ticketingoptions/sv_upgrades.htm.

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