There is good news from the friendly skies of United. The airline has just announced it is giving its top coach passengers five to six more inches of legroom. This will not be available to everybody--only to frequent-flier-club members and those who pay full coach fares.

Everyone is rejoicing. This is a real breakthrough, particularly for people who have leg problems. In the past many of our airlines have requested that people check their legs in the baggage compartments above their seat. Those with particularly long legs were requested to check their legs at the terminal curb and pick them up when they arrived at their destination.

United said it will have a special section set aside to provide its favored people with legroom. Those who are in the back of the plane will still be required to hold their legs up against the passenger in front of them.

Instead of Smoking and No Smoking, the lights will indicate which sections offer room for your knees.

The question arises, how did United arrive at giving us the whole five to six inches of extra space? My guess is it put a passenger in a flight simulator and tested what would be a reasonable area for him without creating too much animosity among the poor coach passengers who were lucky someone would even sell them a ticket.

An interesting thought occurred to me and that is, was United admitting by its move that it was not providing enough leg space to economy class? We all know that economy-class passengers, based on what they eat, do not demand much compared with those in first class.

United says it is catering to the legroom class because most of the complaints have come from businessmen whose companies won't let them fly first-class.

Doctors for the airlines say that most passengers in economy have enough legroom if they sit on their legs and don't try to stretch them.

United is the first airline to give its customers a break. Reports indicate that the others will match it. As one plane designer said, "We consider this one small step for man and one giant step for mankind."

I'm not a chronic complainer, but I believe everyone--man, woman and child--should be entitled to six inches of leg space. If Lindbergh had to fly with the leg space the airlines give our economy passengers, he would have never made it to Paris.

(C) 1999, Los Angeles Times Syndicate