One of the key outstanding questions surrounding the United-Continental merger has been that of United's Economy Plus seating section: Would it be retained on United's planes and extended to Continental's fleet?
Yesterday, both of those questions were answered in the affirmative.
Economy Plus Has a Future
United announced that Economy Plus will remain in place on the aircraft in United's fleet; and, beginning in 2012, Continental planes will be reconfigured to include Economy Plus as well. There were no specifics given as to the timeframe for the Continental makeover, just a rather vague allusion to a "multi-year conversion."
United currently offers Economy Plus on 359 of its own aircraft and more than 150 United Express regional jets. When Continental's fleet is fully converted, Economy Plus will be available on more than 700 planes, accounting for more than 40,000 Economy Plus seats, "the largest amount of extra legroom economy seating available to customers of any airline in the world," according to United.
A Plus for Frequent Flyers
For members of United's Mileage Plus program, the news comes as a relief, confirmation that a featured benefit of the elite program will survive the inevitable merging and purging that follows a merger.
In addition to selling Economy Plus as an annual subscription and on a flight-by-flight basis, United makes it available to elite members of its program, automatically, if an upgrade to first class isn't available.
As such, it's been an important backstop to first-class upgrades, giving Mileage Plus elites a minimum comfort expectation when booking United—not first class, but a significant upgrade from normal coach.
For Continental partisans, the prospect of a predictably available upgrade from basic coach to Economy Plus is a definite improvement.
Continental currently offers its elite OnePass members access to a makeshift version of United's Economy Plus: bulkhead and exit-row seats with varying degrees of extra legroom. It's better than nothing, but is still a slapdash solution to a problem definitively addressed by the Economy Plus product.
Comfy Coach Alternatives
For frequent flyers, or coach-class flyers willing to pay a modest premium for extra legroom, Economy Plus gives United a significant competitive advantage over most other U.S. carriers.
But United doesn't have a monopoly on more-room-in-coach.
JetBlue routinely self-promotes as the leader in comfy coach: "JetBlue offers the most legroom in coach of any U.S. airline (based on average fleet-wide seat pitch) and super-spacious Even More Legroom seats."
And earlier this month, Delta announced plans to offer a premium economy section, dubbed Economy Comfort, with more legroom on international flights, beginning this summer.
For many travelers who find themselves caught between too-spartan coach and too-pricey business or first class, the hope is that such hybrid products will further proliferate, providing a better option for affordable comfort.
Now that the fate of Economy Plus has been clarified, customers of United and Continental can turn their attention to other questions that bear on travel comfort and, ultimately, on the value of the Mileage Plus program.
For example, it remains to be seen whether the extra floor space required for Continental's new Economy Plus will come at the expense of existing first-class or coach seats. If first-class capacity suffers, upgrades to Economy Plus could come at the expense of upgrades to first.
Next question: Will the merged carriers opt to go with two-class service on international routes (like Continental), or three-class service (like United)?
And another: What will become of United's p.s. premium coast-to-coast service?
Reader Reality Check
How important to you is Economy Plus or another premium-economy option when choosing an airline?
How much value does Economy Plus add to the Mileage Plus program?
This article originally appeared on FrequentFlier.com.