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 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.