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Airlines are all business about perks

United will provide more leg room to full-fare passengers, the latest move to lure the lucrative fliers.

Bigger first-class sections. More leg room in certain rows. No more expiring frequent-flier miles.

It's all part of the major airlines' attempts to woo the so-called "road warriors" _ business travelers who fly regularly and often pay expensive, last-minute fares.

What does that mean for the deal-seeking budget traveler?

"If they hate it now, they're going to hate it worse later because the airlines . . . are making the seats smaller," said Tom Parsons, editor of Bestfares.com, which tracks fares and sells tickets to the Web site's members. "Airlines are more concerned with taking care of that big-ticket person."

This week, United Airlines president Rono Dutta echoed that point when his airline introduced a $30-million plan to create a new Economy Plus section for passengers who pay full price for economy-class tickets. Among the features: 4 or 5 more inches of leg room than the regular coach class in the back of the plane.

Business travelers make up 9 percent of United's passenger load but account for a whopping 46 percent of ticket revenues.

"We have a lot of business-class passengers trapped in economy class," Dutta said. And they are demanding a higher class of service _ mostly, more room to stretch out and maneuver with laptop computers, he said.

But looked at another way, United will be returning its frequent fliers to a level of comfort that was enjoyed by all coach passengers only a short time ago. Over the past decade, seat pitch has steadily declined in coach from 34 inches as airlines tried to squeeze more paying passengers onto each plane.

United's move could usher in a new caste system in the air by creating the first new level of service since business class was introduced. Though competing airlines may wait to decide whether to spend the money to copy United, analysts said they would have little choice if the new section is a success.

"We will not allow ourselves to be at a competitive disadvantage," said Bill Berry, a spokesman for Delta Air Lines. "But it is too early to give any kind of response as to what Delta will do."

United's success is by no means guaranteed. Other airlines have tried to woo passengers with more leg room only to find that the effort did not pay off. Critics also say that creating a preferred class in coach could spark even more ill will when the roomier seats fill up, forcing some qualified passengers to sit in the regular economy section.

That, along with increased delays, a decline in food service, poor customer service, more people flying and a myriad of other hassles has created a groundswell of complaints against the airline industry.

Those who track frequent fliers say they are hearing more complaints. That crankiness has been exacerbated by labor troubles at American and Northwest airlines and increasing reports of passengers getting bumped frequently by Delta and other airlines.

"Delays are increasing. Complaints are increasing. Service is perceived to be worse," said Karen Goodwin, editor of Frequent Flyer magazine, based in Oak Brook, Ill.

Parsons, himself an "elite" frequent flier on several airlines, applauded the attempts to appease fliers who may be paying four to six times as much for an economy ticket as the vacation travelers they have been sitting next to.

"If you can't get an upgrade then you're thrown back in the zoo _ the back of the bus. All the crying kids, all the people who don't know what's going on," Parsons said. "So you say I'm never going to fly this airline again."

United and TWA, which recently announced an expanded first class, also are getting applause from groups that represent passengers, including the Washington-based Air Travelers Association. American this week became the latest airline to essentially drop expiration dates on frequent-flier miles, which many fliers use for upgrades, a move that United is considering.

But not all travelers are convinced.

Even though he is 6 feet 2, traveler Coleman Conley said he is not so worried about having more leg room _ or fancy service. The Chicago stockbroker said he would rather pay less for tickets.

"They're just painting a picture to demand a higher cost," Conley said. "When you think about it, a plane is really no different than a bus with wings."

_ Information from New York Times was used in this report.

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