For some elite fliers, United restricts Economy Plus seating

by Janice Hough on September 23, 2011


Elite status in an airline’s frequent flier program can bring many perks, from free checked luggage, to bonus miles, to priority waitlists and upgrades. United Airlines is now changing one of their freqent fliers’ most cherished perks.

Since they are prioritized by status, those upgrades are often available only to the highest level fliers. But for years, all elites in United’s Mileage Plus programs have had one of the simplest and most sought-after perks — access to extra legroom in the Economy Plus section.

Most carriers now have some sort of “premium” seating available in coach for an extra charge or for their elite members. However, with most legacy carriers, the only thing “premium” about the seats is location. It might be an aisle or window seat towards the front of the cabin, but it’s the same seat with the same legroom as in the back.

(Exit-row seats are a notable exception, but most airlines don’t allow them to be preassigned at any price, except for their highest-ranking fliers.)

On the other hand, United’s Economy Plus is a genuinely better experience. I’m 5’3″ and, even for me, the extra space feels a lot more comfortable. It’s also much easier to get in and out of the seat. For anyone using a laptop or even using their tray table for meals, it means not feeling completely pinned in, especially if the person in front reclines. Some of my clients tell me it makes the difference in whether or not they can work on the flight.

Many regular travelers tell me they prefer a middle seat in economy plus to an aisle or window in back.

United just sent an email to frequent fliers talking about the changes to their Mileage Plus program for 2012, as they continue on their merger path with Continental. Many of the changes, which will no doubt be covered in future posts on Consumer Traveler, look promising. (Particularly intriguing is a fourth level — Platinum — for anyone who flies between 75,000 and 100,000 miles a year. Along with what seems to be a return to same-day, free flight changes for higher elites.)

Depending on mileage level, one change stands out, and for the lowest-level elites, not in a good way. For these basic premiers (Silver level, 25,000-49,999) miles a year, Economy Plus seating will still be available, but ONLY at time of check-in.

The email didn’t state whether this means only on the day of departure or for online check-in the day before. In any case, it means that on popular routes, these travelers are either going to end up in the back of the bus or paying additional fees like no-status travelers.

Now of course, Economy Plus seats MIGHT be available on day of departure, but in my experience with the San Francisco to Dulles flights, such seats are never available even two or three weeks in advance. In fact, I just booked a 100,000 mile a year flier today on such a flight for October 10, almost three weeks from now, and only one of United’s ten nonstops had an economy plus aisle available.

On a positive note, restricting the lower level premiers might open up more seats for more frequent fliers. (Although it is anyone’s guess whether those newly opened seats will be quickly filled by travelers paying the surcharge.) And while my experience is limited to our agency clients, friends and readers, my sense is that United must have been receiving angry emails from high-level fliers who ended up stuck in a lousy seat in back.

On the other hand, some travelers who, whether they only fly somewhat regularly, or just end up splitting their travel between different carriers, are going to be hugely disappointed, especially those who have arranged their 2011 travel in part to qualify for United’s Premier level.

My sense, however, is that this change will stick. For the airline’s biggest spenders this will be a positive development. Which means for many travelers, 2012 may mean “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a cramped ride.”

Photo: johnnyjet

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  • Anonymous

    Outrageous.  Now I remember why I decided to opt for another carrier between DC and Paris and let my 1K status lapse. I will never forget the Hong Kong – Chicago flight (I was hoping for an upgrade) where I flew in the rear of the plane in the middle middle. It didn’t do anything to garner my loyalty. 

  • Tony A.

    This is quickly morphing to a situation where your fare pays for a confirmed space and an extra fee pays for the actual seat. So if airlines can make more money (CASH) on seat assignments and boarding order, why will they give that away to loyal fliers? If all airlines behave and think this way then loyal fliers can’t go anywhere else. With airline mergers, joint ventures, and alliances; where else can one turn to? Dream on.

  • Phil

    When United first offered its Economy Plus seating “subscription” I bought it.  I was going to Paris and to SE Asia and thought it would be a good deal (only $149 for the year as I recall).  Buying it was easy.  Getting United to honor it was another.  UA would change seats for the flight and put me in the back, not once but several times.  Somehow even though the Economy Plus subscription was associated with my FF number which was associated with my reservation they would always fail to notice when they moved me.  On one Paris trip my sister, who also had the subscription, had her seats in Economy Plus on the way to CDG but when we returned to CDG for our return flight they had reassigned her to seats in the rear of the aircraft.  She had to argue with the agent at length to get seats in Economy Plus again.  We both decided the seats weren’t worth the hassle United required of us to keep them.

  • Ron

    It really isn’t a surprise.  Continental had limited the availability of many of its best seats to Gold or Platinum Elites until 24 hours before flying, when they opened them up to Silver Elites.  United and Continental are taking the most airline friendly policies from each as they merge into one airline…..Think about it, I bet that one of the key reasons the new FF program is going to be Mileage Plus, not OnePass is because Mileage Plus miles expire after 18 months….Continental miles never expired.

    But you do have to think about this…..If half the people flying are Elite, how special is this status?  It seems that Silver level is reachable to anyone….heck, you can buy your way to Silver status on Continental using different programs.  It is only fair that they keep access to these premium seats to the flyers that fly the most.

  • AirlineEmployee

    I can just hear it now …..(shrieking)….”but I’m Premiiiieer!!”…..
    Yeah, so are 85 percent of the passengers on this plane going to Denver (or any other hub).   So passengers can complain all they want, it’s just a case of musical chairs – first come, first serve;  there are tons of 1k, 1P, Global, etc etc etc – get in line.  

  • Mapsmith

    I would not be surprised if this move is a move toward eliminating the Economy Plus section altogether.  Remember AA’s More Room Throughout Coach.  Once UA/CO realizes that potential Business Class or First Class is PAYING for a little more pitch in Coach and not paying for the more expensive fares, poof goes the E+ seating.

  • garyj

    A a 20+ year UA premier flyer (some years next level) this was the greatest benefit from the program. (yea free baggage is nice but for a carry on guy not that important one checked bag is the most I have done).  UA got my loyalty for the economy plus seat.  When AA had there whole plane I occasionally flew them if more convenient now with UAs new policy price and convenience wins out and loyalty stops. Time to burn thru 800,000 miles. The chance to use them for upgrades as a  premier flyer stopped long ago, now its a couple big trips and then time to shop for cattle car flights…

  • Bodega

    So true, SO true!

  • MVFLyer

    I guess this makes sense from a business perspective, but it will alienate the low level so-called elites–I wonder if this is what UA had to do in light of having so many more high level fliers and fewer economy plus seats taking into account the ex CO’s non-economy plus aircraft.  If past performance is any indicator, it’ll take UA years to convert these planes over.  Even though UA changed its livery years ago to the white and blue paint job, there are still a bunch of the battleship grey planes out there.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/John-Baker/787503543 John Baker

     This, unfortunately, comes down to simple math. Starting next year, the combined airline will have twice as many upper level elites (or around that number) as the two airlines did when they were separate attempting to claim the same number of Economy Plus seats (since the CO equipment doesn’t have them).

    Janice … how many times have you already written about getting seats for 1Ks at the last minute?  If UA doesn’t make this change, high level elites flying at the last minute on the most expensive tickets would get the least desirable seats. 

    They had to decide who to make happy and opted for their true frequent fliers instead of the people who fly a few times a year. I don’t fault them for it.

  • Scott

    Couldn’t be further from the truth. Whatever you think about the rest of this, United has already announced putting Economy Plus on all Continental metal aircraft starting in 2012.

  • Tony A.

    Agree. Even Cathay Pacific is adding Economy Plus. Anything to add more fees (get more money) by introducing Segmentation works. Funny thing is that passengers whine but pay. Haven’t yet seen an Arab Spring with flyers.

  • Beberly

    I’m in total agreement…..I also  am  a UA premier flyer (some years next level).   I will also use my miles for free trips (if possible) and the shop for cattle car flights.   It was great while it lasted.

  • Beberly

    I’m in total agreement…..I also  am  a UA premier flyer (some years next level).   I will also use my miles for free trips (if possible) and the shop for cattle car flights.   It was great while it lasted.

  • MPB

    With the benfits from United decreasing for the Premier level does Chase understand that besides leaving the United program people will also be changing credit cards. I only flty30,000 – 40,000 miles per year but I charge $75,000+.  I not important to United but I think I might be to Chase. I’m hoping Chase creates someting in their program so I can get Economy Plus back… otherwise I’m leaving.

  • nate

    I don’t mind having this seats open up 24 hours before the flight including upgrades, and 2 check bag. What is loyalty all about if  you can’t use it.

  • Janice

    just saw your response. I don’t fault them either. But their marketing people need to dial it back.

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