Be More Comfortable
in Coach (Really!)
SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 18, 2024 -- Nancy Pelosi's vote-counting skills were legendary when she was Speaker of the House. It is a skill her many Republican successors have yet to master. But Ms. Pelosi is as bad as the GOP speakers when it comes to guessing airline loads and scoring empty middle seats.

Although it got buried in the other Super Bowl fluff, news leaked out that Pelosi and her husband Paul booked window and aisle coach seats last Saturday on an Alaska Airlines flight from San Francisco to Las Vegas. When another traveler showed up to claim his middle seat, the Speaker Emerita graciously gave up her window seat and sat next to her husband on the one-hour, 40-minute flight.

Before we continue, a bit of a fact check: The Pelosis are octogenarians. They're fabulously wealthy and she's still a member of the House of Representatives. Why are they gambling on an empty middle seat on a flight the day before the Super Bowl? For that matter, what are they doing flying coach? Hell, what are they doing flying commercial? If you are old and rich and powerful and headed to a Super Bowl to root for your team, why haven't you booked a private jet?

I can't answer those questions, but word to the Pelosis and everyone else: If you want to fly coach and want to be (relatively) comfortable, pay the proverbial $2. Book the middle seat to keep it empty. We have talked about the "three-seat scenario" before, but it bears repeating given the Pelosis' colossal blunder. Occupying three coach seats isn't nearly as comfortable as sitting in domestic first class or international business class, but it offers much more personal space and a modicum of privacy.

Be warned, though: You shouldn't just purchase three tickets under your name, walk up to the ticket counter and claim your seats. You or your travel agent must--repeat, must--call the airline in advance, alert it to your intentions, and then buy the tickets via phone. Most carriers will code the third ticket purchase as an "extra seat"--some will even assign it to a Mr. E. Seat--and tie it to your itinerary. And be sure to arrange for advance seat assignments--the seats must be next to each other, of course--at the time you call the airline.

As the travel world--if not the Pelosis--has picked up on the three-seat strategy in recent years, there are new wrinkles: Airlines promote domestic first-class upsells fairly cheaply these days, so don't assume a seat up front is out of financial reach. Some international carriers now let you book a middle seat online without the hassle of calling. There also are more premium-economy/extra-legroom rows available, but you'll still face that middle-seat conundrum in the middle cabin. No reason not to deploy the three-seat scenario in premium economy, too.

Even better, the relatively new Airbus A220 is configured 2x3 in coach (a la the late, lamented DC-9s and MD-80s), so two of you traveling together on some coach itineraries can seek out an A220. More than 300 already are in service worldwide with hundreds more on the way. Domestically, you will find them on Delta Air Lines and Breeze Airways. (In fact, Breeze was specifically created to fly the A220s.) JetBlue is adding A220s, too, although they are replacing the airline's fleet of Embraer EMB-190s, which are configured 2x2. Air Canada flies A220s as does Air France and a few other international airlines.

Internationally, Air New Zealand offers a full-row option--the so-called Skycouch--on many of its long-haul flights. Lufthansa sells a similar product called the Sleeper's Row. All Nippon Airways has gone even further. On flights between Honolulu and Tokyo/Narita, it sells the ANA COUCHii and you can buy one that spans a 4-seat row as well as a 3-seat row. Several other carriers offer coach couches, too, although it is definitely a niche product.

The key to flying in a coach cabin couch? Keep your expectations in check. The so-called "poor man's business class" does offer more space and carriers selling couches do supply rudimentary bedding to make the coach row seem more like a sofa or a bed. But remember: You're sitting in (or laying on) coach seats, so you will receive coach meals and coach in-flight service.

Meanwhile, if you're traveling solo, domestically or internationally, you can still buy the seat next to you in order to keep it empty. Book by calling the airline as outlined above. You are not guaranteed the full row, of course. Given current airline load factors, someone is surely going to book the empty window or aisle seat in your row. But, hey, maybe you can suggest your fortunate row mate buy you a beverage as a thank-you gesture for his or her share of the extra comfort.

Finally, it is worth remembering that Taylor Swift chartered a private jet all the way from Tokyo to catch the Super Bowl last week and her team, the Kansas City Chiefs, won the game. The Pelosis cheaped out on a short flight, gambled on the empty middle coach seat and the 49ers lost.

Think about it. The coach comfort that you desire--and maybe your favorite team's fortune--depends on your decision.