United Keeps Economy Plus, Frequent Flier Rejoice


When United and Continental agreed to merge, there were a lot of decisions to be made about whether to keep legacy United policies or legacy Continental policies. One of the biggest decisions in the minds of frequent fliers was whether Economy Plus would stay or not. The word is out, and Economy Plus is staying. That noise you just heard was a collective sigh of relief from United’s frequent fliers, though I think they’re only part of the reason that Economy Plus is sticking around.

For those who don’t fly United Economy PlusUnited, Economy Plus gives you an extra few inches of legroom. It’s a kind of premium economy, but all you get is extra legroom. Nothing else is different from regular coach, or as I like to call it, Economy Minus.

Until Delta’s announcement that it would add a similar offering on its international flights, United stood alone among legacy airlines as having this option. Now, the new United will keep Economy Plus. All existing United aircraft will keep it as will the 70 seat regional jets that have it today. In addition, Continental’s mainline fleet will get it installed beginning in 2012. This will likely take more than a year to get the fleet up to speed but no further details are available at this point.

In the decade that Economy Plus has been in existence at United, it has only had to earn its keep for the last few years. The math seems simple. It costs a certain amount of money to have fewer seats on the airplane in order to make room for more legroom. If you can charge enough for Economy Plus to offset that cost, then it’s a winner.

That’s why American’s More Room Throughout Coach never had a chance. It’s a lot harder to get a premium on all your fares and that failed. But Economy Plus was different.

When United finally started selling upgrades at every possible occasion and offering annual access for a price, it didn’t take long to start making the money to cover the cost. In addition, United was able to rebuild some of the loyalty it lost among frequent fliers when its operation fell apart during the pilot slowdown in the summer of 2000.

When the new United announced it would keep Economy Plus, I received several emails from ecstatic frequent fliers who were more than happy to see that perk sticking around. It will certainly help with loyalty.

But I don’t want to overplay the impact of Economy Plus on elite travelers too much, however. Yes, a lot of people have said that they’d leave United if Economy Plus disappeared, but I tend to think that many of those are empty threats.

Where else would you go? If you’re in Chicago, you might have a better chance of getting that First Class upgrade on American thanks to a bigger cabin, but there is no Economy Plus option there if you don’t get that upgrade. If you do a lot of international travel, then maybe Delta would be an option, but there aren’t too many cities where Delta and United can both offer compelling schedules to frequent fliers anyway. And again, that’s only for international travel.

In the end, I assume that the Continental management team got into the books and saw that people actually are willing to pay for Economy Plus. Even with that knowledge, I still wasn’t convinced that it would stay. I mean, Continental people are likely to have a bias toward their legacy policies, and it takes a lot to change that mindset.

This move tells me that United was continuing to be able to make Economy Plus pay and it was too hard for the Continental folks to ignore. The strengthened elite loyalty and general goodwill must have been icing on the cake, and so the new management team made the right decision. That’s a very encouraging sign for the direction of the new airline.

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25 comments on “United Keeps Economy Plus, Frequent Flier Rejoice

  1. From what I know about Continental from the Bethune days is that they’ve got a bias to look at the numbers and do what makes sense from that. Sure sometimes they’ve held onto some things a bit longer than others (free food, if you could call it food.) but if there is real money in it, they’ll do it.

  2. I wonder if they’ll keep the bulls*it policy for international flights where you have to use points *and* pay $300-500 to upgrade to business. Since they now auto-upgrade domestically, it makes miles pointless.

  3. I don’t have status and I’m not rich, but whenever I fly internationally I ALWAYS look at the prices for economy plus, sometimes the price is right and sometimes it isn’t.

  4. I’m not a United guy, though I do appreciate the difference. But as a US elite and former AA elite, I was usually always able to snag exit row or an upgrade. Is the E+ seat different than exit row? I know there are more of them, but I guess I rarely have the problem of being elite and getting stuck in a small seat.

    1. On United on the CRJs (so really Skywest but same flag), Economy Minus really is minus… Really cramped in the back. The Economy Plus seats are a nice upgrade for which I would not pay if I did not have status (I am cheap, and I don’t really know company policy on that… Probably would be ok, but I am also cheap with the company money). I think I have only flown on two mainline united flights (against several dozen at least on the crjs). Economy once and E+ once and not much of a difference on the mainline for my eye. One of those was weird since the ticket had problems and every time I had to talk to someone from United they kept wanting to “upgrade” me to an E+ window seat, when I wanted to do something else and was perfectly happy with my aisle.

    2. Most exit rows are part of Economy Plus. Unfortunately, the seats are only free for UA and CO elites – not for US or other *G elites.

    3. As ptahcha said, exit rows are part of Economy Plus, but they will have more legroom than your standard Economy Plus seat. Still, those seats can have less cushioning and many have the tray table in the armrest so it reduces your space a little. But ultimately, yeah, you’re getting more legroom in Economy Plus just as you do in the exit row.

  5. When CO joined *A I immediately started booking flights on UA metal when I could, just to get E+, but still earn CO-EQMs. At first, I had to pay the premium, but later on it became a CO*G amenity.

    As you said in your report, schedule and convenience are the first priorities in selecting a primary airline. As someone who flies out of EWR, that pretty much meant CO.

    I have a 7 flight, 3 week schedule coming up, one part of which is CPH-IAD. I’m taking a LH connection in FRA because FRA-IAD is on UA metal and I get E+ (and a very longshot chance at F). There were quicker and slightly less expensive ways to get back to the US, but a long ride with a few extra inches legroom is worth a few hundred more miles flying time.

  6. I am curious to see if the addition of E+ on Continental aircraft means the subtraction of First Class seats. As a Silver Medallion on Delta, I find it pretty easy to get the upgrade to First. If I don’t make the cut, bulkhead and exit rows are easy to come by. If Delta removed First Class rows to give more room in coach, I’d probably never get an upgrade.

    1. I can’t imagine the E+ on CO metal coming at the expense of F seats. They’ll likely just lose a couple rows of Economy to make room.

    2. When CO launched it’s new BusinessFirst seat the elites were very forward in requesting that the installation of the new seat would not come at the expense of the number of seats available. CO listened and removed Economy seats instead. I imagine they will do the same here.

    3. I’m not entirely sure about that one, but I do tend to agree with Hunter and rewthur. Still, Continental’s 737-800s have more First Class than United’s A320s, so it makes you wonder if there will be an effort to standardize offerings at some point in the future.

    4. This is the next big decision about which I’m curious. How many first class seats? United’s A319s have only 2 rows (8 seats) of first, about the smallest first class cabin I find on mainline single-aisle aircraft; the A320s have 3 rows. The 757s have a first class cabin that’s much larger and more on-par with the first class cabins you find on DL or CO. With United and Continental having complimentary upgrades, will the size of the first class cabin match CO’s larger cabin (with more upgrade eligibility), or will they stick with UA’s smaller cabin? Or will they not standardize? I can’t tell you how many times, as Premier Exec., I’ve been #1 on the upgrade list when the first class cabin is full…

      It’s an interesting management dilemma — please the elites through E+, but decrease upgrade potential with smaller first class, or have a large first class cabin and E+, but decrease revenue potential from some extra E- rows? Hmmm.

  7. Now we are all waiting to see if they stick with First and Business on long-haul or just Business. I was kind of thinking we would get that announcement about the same time as the E+ decision.

  8. i booked jax to houston to aspen last month via united’s wesite. it put me on cont to houston and then united to ase.. but it will not allow me to select any seats unless i buy the upgraded plus so we have no seat selection for our trip for 4 of us… we will see what happens…. It already cost me$849 for this trip so i did not want to pay anymore enough is enough… i have gotten much better fares in the past ($350)

  9. So glad to see the this product will continue – especially as I travel to Hawaii regularly on my dime. I happily pay for it everytime I fly United as I’m tall. Sure hope they keep the policy that you can still buy your way out of economy, even if you are on mleage. I don’t think many folks realize how reasonably priced it is (although you can now see the rates on United.com, just price a reservation). The thought of a 31 inch pitch is a buzz kill when planning a vacation.

  10. Long-time UAL flier here, Premier-Exec who fortunately hasn’t had to ride in a true Coach seat in years. But I did this past month on a couple Continental flights and man-o-man, what a difference Economy Plus makes! I’m a short guy, so the extra legroom isn’t a big deal, but those extra few inches between my face and the seatback in front of me is the difference between feeling claustrophobic or not. So, I’m happy to hear that United’s Economy Plus is staying and I’m thrilled to hear that they’re going to add it to the Continental fleet.

  11. “In the decade that Economy Plus has been in existence at United, it has only had to earn its keep for the last few years. The math seems simple. It costs a certain amount of money to have fewer seats on the airplane in order to make room for more legroom. If you can charge enough for Economy Plus to offset that cost, then it’s a winner.”

    I think the math isn’t quite as simple. A lot of the passengers in E+ are elite passengers, so UA didn’t get more money for that particular passenger’s seat in E+. But it most likely increased loyalty for UA. The difficult part is expressing that in $$$.

    “When United finally started selling upgrades at every possible occasion and offering annual access for a price, it didn’t take long to start making the money to cover the cost.”

    The annual purchase option has been available for a long time. I don’t quite recall when they started offering it, but I bought it before I became an elite. I suspect it was around 2002.

    One thing to note is that the reduction in seats in E+ only really has the potential for a loss of revenue if the flights are packed to the gills. And that, I believe, has not been the case during the early days of E+. But in recent years the load factors have gone up and so it’s become more important to upsell to E+.

    1. Two thoughts for you Oliver . . .

      1) I’m guessing that Economy Plus pays for itself even before trying to quantify the loyalty benefit, so it is fairly simple if that’s true. The loyalty piece, whatever it might be, would just be gravy.

      2) I believe Economy Plus Access (the original name of the annual option) wasn’t introduced until 2005. Here are a couple of articles on that:

      Before that, you either got Economy Plus if you were an elite member in Mileage Plus or if you bought a high fare ticket. Single trip upgrade options were rolled out over time to different parts of the booking/travel process to the point now where you can pay to upgrade anytime.

  12. Now I’m torn… I am usually frustrated with the way United nickels and dimes you for every little thing, but I neeeeed that extra leg room! Dunno, seems like I’ve saved a few bucks with United lately but the entire experience just feels more unpleasant than usual.

  13. Economy Plus is not worth it. In fact, without Economy Plus, more seats would be sold, and that means less seats on the plane if Economy Plus were installed. United Airlines also should have PTVs on the backs of EVERY seat on ANY aircraft, after what it is done to its costumers.

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