For years, I have heard travelers and writers chastise the airline industry for poor management and too narrow a range of choices for consumers. When one airline finally steps up to the plate with a revenue-generating idea that also increases choice, you would think pundits and consumers would applaud.
Quite the contrary.
Northwest Airline's new test offering of selected Coach Choice seats at a $15 premium per flight has received less than rave reviews from the press and travel bloggers.
Before I explain why Coach Choice is good for the flying public, let's get the facts straight.
* As of March 14, approximately 5 percent of Northwest's coach seats have been set aside for Coach Choice seat assignment.
* Coach Choice seats are selected aisle and exit-row seats located at the front of the coach cabin.
* Coach Choice seats can be confirmed from anywhere in the United States, but only within 24 hours of departure unless the traveler is a Northwest frequent flier (see next point).
* Frequent fliers with "WorldPerks Elite" or "SkyTeam Elite" status can purchase Coach Choice seats within 36 hours of departure by using the Manage My Reservations tool on Northwest's Web site, giving them a 12-hour head start on the general public.
* Seats can be purchased online or at self-service check-in kiosks at the airport.
* The price for a Coach Choice seat is $15 per flight; note that some routes involve more than one flight.
Why is Coach Choice a good thing for travelers and the airline industry?
For starters, it gives travelers a choice, and choice seems to be what Americans want. Look at the recent move in Congress to force cable television companies to offer free choice in channel selection. The scheme under current discussion would allow consumers to decide whether they really need ESPN and TV Land; if not, they wouldn't have to pay for those channels. Conversely, if a consumer couldn't live without "The Sopranos," all he'd have to do is pay for HBO.
It's called "a la carte pricing," and it's no different from what the world's finest restaurants have been offering their discriminating customers for decades. Northwest's Coach Choice brings "a la carte" to the skies.
This plan is good for Northwest's frequent fliers
The new seat-selection plan will not adversely affect Northwest's frequent fliers. Like business class passengers and travelers with special needs, travelers with "WorldPerks Elite" or "Partner Elite" status will continue to have access to other designated "premium" seats at the front of the cabin. They will also have first dibs on those premium seats when higher-level elite members are upgraded to first class.
Moreover, what's good for Northwest is good for its frequent fliers. Elite membership is not built overnight. In my case, I have invested years of seat time building a relationship with Delta Air Lines. By and large, it has served me well. If you are a frequent flier with Northwest, you need to watch its balance sheet carefully. If Northwest goes under, all your seat time goes with it, and you will have to start over with some other airline. Even if the new airline is willing to match your Northwest status (and airlines will often do that, just to get your business), you won't have the personal history of goodwill that you built with Northwest over the years.
Many travel commentators have called Northwest's move a greedy attempt to squeeze money from the traveling public. But think about this for a minute: According to a recent report from Business Travel Monitor, domestic airfares hit a six-year low in 2005 -- despite high fuel costs. With historically low airfares, it is hard to argue that U.S. airlines are gouging the public by offering travelers the opportunity to pay a nominal fee to guarantee a choice seat.
Think of it as real estate: Location, location, location. In my Southern California community, developers can command twice as much for a house with an ocean view as for one without. The better the view, the more you pay. Some people just can't live without that glittering ocean view; others say it's not worth the cost. The beauty of the system is: The choice is yours to make.
So why shouldn't the seats on an airplane be priced by their locations? If this is going to help airlines stay airborne, I'm all for it. Low airfares are a boon to all air travelers. Logic and economics tell us that lower fares mean less revenue for the airlines. To have our cake and eat it, too, we need to support airlines that seek alternative revenue streams.
In my opinion, low fares, consumer choice and profitable airlines make for a win-win-win situation. Instead of denouncing Northwest, the traveling public should be applauding it.
I certainly am.

Joel Widzer