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Making sense of United’s ‘Economy Plus Access’

In most industries, consumers have a choice of buying a low-end product or service at a low price, or adding features in small increments, with correspondingly small increments in price. That’s certainly the case with hotel accommodations and cruise cabins, among many travel services. Unfortunately, that hasn’t been the case with air travel: On most routes, the airlines still offer you either: (1) a low-price product that is too cramped and crowded, or (2) a good product that is prohibitively expensive. A reader recently raised a question about those choices.

“I’m heading for Buenos Aires in a few months,” he wrote, “and although I’m paying for the trip myself, I dread those long flights in a cramped economy seat. But I don’t have enough frequent flyer miles for an upgrade. Is there any way I can find a seat that will allow me to stretch my legs a bit without stretching my budget to the breaking point?”

The short answer: Yes, there is. United’s new “Economy Plus Access” lets you buy your way into the airline’s “Economy Plus” seats, with extra legroom, regardless of how little you pay for your ticket or how low your frequent flyer status.

What you get

Starting a few years ago, United converted the front of its economy cabins to “Economy Plus” seating, with three to five inches more legroom than its usual economy—or usual economy on most of its competitors. By now, United has modified its entire fleet, including low-fare subsidiary Ted and even some of the larger regional jets on United Express.

The original idea was to reserve those “Economy Plus” seats for travelers on high-priced economy tickets or high-ranking members of United’s frequent flyer program. But in late July, in an effort to secure additional revenue wherever any revenue could be found, United decided to sell access to anyone who wants to buy.
The “Economy Plus Access” promotion allows you to buy into “Economy Plus” seating by paying $299 a year. “Economy Plus Access” offers three options:

  • The base $299 gets you and a traveling companion into “Economy Plus” for a year, regardless of your frequent flyer status and the cost of your ticket.
  • You can combine “Economy Plus Access” with a year’s membership in the Red Carpet Club (United’s airport lounge system) for an extra $400—that’s less than the usual fee of $500 per year.
  • Add yet another $50 (for a total of $749), and you can put yourself on a “fast track” to Premier frequent flyer status—you get to Premier when you fly 15,000 miles or 15 segments, compared with the usual 25,000 miles or 30 segments.

One side note: If your United travel is mainly between New York and either Los Angeles or San Francisco, you don’t need to spend the $299. All of the economy seats on United’s nonstops are “Economy Plus.”

What you don’t get

As I’ve noted elsewhere, “Economy Plus” is only a pale imitation of real premium economy. The main failing is that the seats are just as narrow as in regular economy. And, on most United planes, that means each seat is three to four inches too narrow to accommodate most Americans comfortably. Also, while the legroom in “Economy Plus” is better than in its ordinary economy, it’s still three to four inches short of true premium economy. Still, even with the ultra-narrow seats, those few extra inches of legroom are precious.

The other major downside I can see is that even if you spend that $299, “Economy Plus Access” doesn’t guarantee you a seat in “Economy Plus”—it just permits you to sit there. Seats are assigned on a first-come, first-served basis, and if all the seats are taken by the time you reserve, you’re back in the cattle car. Moreover, even if you get a seat in “Economy Plus,” the section is likely to be full. And with those narrow seats, you’ll still be a little cramped.

Where it fits

“Economy Plus” is United’s first step up the price/quality ladder. The product is certainly better than United’s regular economy; most of the travelers I’ve heard from rate it highly. It’s also much better than economy on most of United’s big competitors.

But you can come close to “Economy Plus” on a few lines without paying $299 per year. Ordinary economy seating on JetBlue (as long as you sit in row 11 and higher) and on Midwest’s “Signature Service” is as good as—or better than—”Economy Plus” on United, at no extra cost.

The next step up on a few lines—on a few routes—is premium economy. True premium economy provides seats three to four inches wider than those in “Economy Plus” and boast an additional three to four inches of legroom. It’s available on some routes on ANA, British Airways, China Southern, EVA, SAS, Singapore, and Thai. The cost ranges from about 30 percent more than the cheapest economy fare to about double.

But on most airlines, the next step up is a very big one: to first class for domestic travel or business class for international trips. Those fares can range anywhere from two or three times the best economy price to as much as 40 times. That’s why lots of travelers who would never think of business class are likely to buy into “Economy Plus Access.”

Case in point

Since no airline flying to our reader’s destination, Buenos Aires, offers premium economy, his four options would be: (1) Pay about $700 for a round-trip economy ticket and suffer through a miserable flight experience; (2) Add the $299 “Economy Plus Access” fee to that $700 and enjoy the extra legroom on this flight, as well as on any future flights for a year; (3) Buy a discounted business ticket from a consolidator, at about $2500, and fly in real comfort; or (4) Pay the absurd asking price for a seat in business class (up to about $8,000 round-trip).

Given those choices, “Economy Plus Access” would look pretty good to lots of travelers.

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