United Airlines’ Economy Minus

I witnessed something aboard a United flight from Bradley to Chicago last weekend that cheered me up. It was the utter breakdown of United’s economy plus seating plan.

Economy plus is what United calls the roomier seats at the front of its coach cabins. I’m not sure I can articulate thoroughly why I hate economy plus, but I can make two points against it.

First, it’s an extra charge for leg room only, with not even the pretense of extra service. The message I get from United is this: Pay extra, or we’ll squish you.

Second, United doesn’t really divide the coach cabin into economy plus and economy seats. It divides it into economy plus and economy minus. United has subtracted an inch from what ought to be the standard seat pitch in economy and added it to the seat pitch in economy plus.

Take the seat pitches on a United Airbus 319: 35 inches in economy plus and 31 inches in economy. (On other United aircraft, economy plus is as roomy as 36 inches. On just a couple of 737 models, plain economy offers 32 inches.)

Now, unfortunately, a 31-inch seat pitch in coach is not unheard of on domestic flights. US Airways has even worse – only 30 inches of leg room in coach on some of its Airbuses. And Skybus, the new low-cost airline, configures its seats with a knee-crunching 29-inch pitch.

But none of the major airlines are as consistently squished, as a matter of policy, as United economy class. Some other airlines have 31-inch rows on some aircraft, but they all offer 32-inch seat pitches in coach on at least some of their jets. American, Southwest, JetBlue and Frontier consistently provide that extra inch – or more. And all the airlines spread the leg room more democratically throughout coach.  (SeatGuru has a comparison chart.)

Which is why I enjoy seeing United’s system break down.

When the husband and I boarded a United 737 to Chicago last weekend, only four people had opted to pay the extra fare to sit in the economy-plus section – the first eight rows in coach. Another 25 passengers were seated in the last 12 rows, the economy section. Because there were so many empty seats, even in the back, passengers began to shift around, including the husband and me, seeking empty rows to stretch out in.

A few economy passengers even moved into economy plus. And several late-comers, seeing their seats taken by other economy passengers, also moved forward into economy plus. A flight attendant made a vague announcement about buying economy plus upgrades for future flights, but he didn’t tell anyone to move.

(I feel sorry for the United flight attendants who have to to enforce this ridiculous back-of-the-bus policy, even when the economy plus section is practically empty. It must be a real pain in the butt, and I hope that they don’t get in trouble if they just let it go, as they did on our flight.)

I’m not suggesting, by the way, that it’s wrong to divide planes into first-class, business class and coach sections. Those distinctions come with extra amenities and service, starting at check in and continuing throughout the flight. Nor do I object to airlines awarding upgrades and better service to their most frequent customers.

I do object to the continuing compaction of the coach passenger, beyond reason and decency. I do blame United for advancing that trend. And I object especially to United’s use of leg room as a device to pressure a few extra bucks out of the coach passenger.

And yet, United’s seating policy is not the worst in the business. I haven’t even started yet on Northwest’s coach choice.


27 thoughts on “United Airlines’ Economy Minus

  1. Nancy

    I would have to agree on your assessment of United’s Economy Plus. Over the summer my family traveled to Hawaii on United. Somehow we did not have assigned seats on our Chicago-Honolulu leg. When I checked in online I was offered the option of paying approximately $400 more for the Economy Plus. After some thought I determined the airline was going to have to put us somewhere so I checked in without paying the extra. Sure enough, we were in the Economy Plus without having to pay any extra fees. My own personal rant against United is no meal being served for a nine hour leg. You were offered a $5 “snack” for purchase. Add that to the $2 curbside check in fee per bag (of which the skycap receives not a dime, mind you–so he is losing out on tips too) and my $4500 flight for the four of us starts approaching the $5000 mark.

  2. Nancy

    I can’t wait to try Virgin America when we go to LA in the spring.
    It will be great for some of our “nickel and dime you to death” airlines to have some competititon!

  3. Steve

    You just don’t have your facts straight. United didn’t reduce pitch to create Econ+…they took a few rows of seats out of economy. Second, United frequentl fliers can sit in Econ+ without paying any additional fee. Third, flight attendants are supposed to, and usually, monitor whether those who are seated in Econ+ are supposed to be seated in Econ+.

  4. Jeanne Leblanc

    You charge me with three errors of fact. I believe I’m innocent of at least two of them.
    One. Perhaps I wasn’t clear enough, but I didn’t mean to say that United moved the economy seats closer together. I’m saying that United’s choice of an economy seat pitch of 31 inches is an inch short of the least economy ought to have, in my opinion. My use of the word “subtracted” was not meant quite that literally but I probably should have used another word. And, clearly, if economy and economy plus were averaged out, you’d have the 32- or 33-inch seat pitch of, say, a Southwest 737 throughout the coach cabin.
    Two. I didn’t address the issue, but I’m afraid that your facts aren’t quite right about United frequent fliers being able to sit in Economy Plus for free. That’s only for Mileage Plus frequent fliers with elite status, which leaves out most of us.
    Three. I did not write that flight attendants aren’t supposed to monitor who sits in economy plus seats. I merely expressed the wish that they wouldn’t.

  5. Anne

    Well, Jeanne it is a product that we sell and people are happy to pay for it, as for it breaking it down, I have no problem going onto the aircraft and moving you back to the sit you actually purchase, if you want EP then pay the upsell………………

  6. Jeanne Leblanc

    Hi Anne,
    To be clear – I didn’t actually move into Economy Plus, although other passengers did. I just took an empty row in the economy section.
    But on two other legs I did get moved into Economy Plus, just like Nancy did. Why? Because people weren’t so happy to pay the extra fare, and United had to backfill with Economy passengers.
    In fact, I’d like to know how often the people in Economy Plus are actually paying that fare and how often they are elite members or people moved up from economy because that section was full.
    In any event, I agree that United has every right to sell that product. And I have every right to hate it.

  7. Andrew

    You write that it’s OK to divide the airplane into classes, because of extra amenities in first and business cabins. If you don’t think extra leg room is also an amenity, you don’t spend enough time on airplanes!

  8. Jeanne Leblanc

    Hi Andrew,
    I agree that extra leg room is an amenity, and I fly enough to appreciate it. But I wrote that first class and business class provide extra amenities and service. Perhaps I should have just written extra service.

  9. Robert of CMH (Port Columbus)

    …..all the MORE reason to fly SKYBUS when you can. This is a phenomenal startup airline. Pay for what you get and get to where you wanna go for $40.00 total…..I’m all about the success of this GREAT airline.

  10. Cathy Jaspers

    A passenger who wants a guarantee of economy plus seating will pay for that seat. This is the advantage to a passenger who may not yet have attained elite status or who may have a highly discounted fare that does not automatically open that seating area for his choosing as he would have had he paid full fare. Having worked for UA in Reservations I can assure you the purpose of econony plus was not about nickel and diming….it was in response to customer demand. Incidentally, skycaps began charging when people stopped tipping curbside. If one doesn’t want to pay for that either…then one can carry them to the check-in line.

  11. John

    As a veteran flight attendant for a major airline, I can’t help but agree with Jeanne. The current seat pitch for the ‘true economy’ section is beyond ridiculous.
    And it’s one thing to tell a passenger to get out of first class if he/she didn’t pay for it if they really belong in row 17. But to tell someone “You dont belong in 19, you belong in row 22” I mean really.
    ‘Extra’ legroom is wonderful. But you shouldn’t have to pay extra to get seating that’s simply ‘non-brutal’
    Yes, my pay has been drastically cut, and work rules today are draconian, but don’t forget your fellow humans…today’s passengers jump through more hoops than ever before they even board that plane. If they still have a smile for me by the time they board the cabin, and I have one as well….then hey, we should BOTH get gold stars.
    ‘Plus’ is a questionable ‘enhancement’ that only serves to add yet another notch into the airline caste system.
    And for the record, if ‘plus’ was wide open, I couldn’t care less where you sat.
    I guess I’m just not the kind of f/a to bite your head off if you ask me for the whole can of soda.
    Safe flights to all—

  12. Bob

    I do not need nor do I want food while on a flight, unless it’s more than 10 hours. (I normally have dinner at 5:30, and breakfast at 7:30 or later, so I don’t need to be served on board a plane.) There is food available before the flight, as well as after, and one actually has room even at a cafe table to enjoy the meal, instead of the 18″ cube you must use while in your seat. Second, I do not want and do not need flight entertainment. One can read – books, magazines, newspapers, or play cards, etc. Airlines should economize by omitting all the video and electronic stuff. What I want and need is SPACE – for knees and wide enough for sitting, and a back that is high enough to rest one’s head against.
    Airline travel at this time is such that one simply endures the time between boarding and exiting. It is a lousy travel experience – except that you get there quickly.

  13. David

    While I understand your complaints, I don’t sympathize with them. As a United frequent flyer, I have chosen United over American at Chicago where both have a pretty similar sized operation because of many reasons, a big one being economy plus. When I make a United reservation, I know that I can sit in a seat with more legroom and greater comfort because of my loyalty to United, whether that means buying a higher priced ticket vs. a competitor in certain instances to maintain that status. However, I don’t feel bad that others have to pay extra to sit there too, after all that is what I have done to maintain my status. If someone wants to sit in a seat with more legroom that they don’t have to pay extra for, they can fly a different airline (although after looking at the seatguru comparison chart, it seems like the industry standard is between 31 and 32, not that United is 31 and everyone else is a lot greater. However, obviously this is not the case because economy plus upsells earn the company $100 million according to investor conferences, which in it of itself could determine a profitable or non-profitable quarter. So I understand your complaints but if you are not happy abouty it, you should fly another airlnie. It’s about supply and demand and it seems like the demand exists for this product. Otherwise, I am happy to know that when I get on a United airplane, I am guranteed extra legroom but am also happy that I know anyone can have it if they pay for it. This only seems fair. After all, there is a difference in service between the two, the legroom. If there was a greater price differential, there might be greater services like food but that would come at a greater fee, and there is a huge fee that allows for those things in first and business.

  14. Steven Barrett

    I used to fly cross-country at least once a year, and United was my preferred airline, because I felt (at that time) that their service was better than some other companies. They’ve gone WAY downhill, and “Economy Plus” was the last straw for me. I don’t know if they’ve changed things at all, but initially the Economy Plus seats were simply the exit rows, which have to have more leg room anyways. I’m a big guy, so I used to try to get to the airport early enough to get one of these seats for long flights; now they want me to pay extra. Yes, they are running a business, but good businesses promote customer service as a way to gain customer loyalty. I’ve voted with my feet; when I have a choice at a similar price, I no longer choose United. Their loss, not mine….
    (BTW, I wonder how they can justify refusing the Economy Plus option to disabled passengers who could REALLY use the extra room. Do they have other Econ+ seats besides the exit rows? Aren’t they subject to discrimination complaints if they don’t?)

  15. Damien

    Steven you mentioned that ‘good businesses promote customer service as a way to gain customer loyalty’ – David’s reply above is exactly what that is about and this is why valued customers with status, who have flown with United on 30+segments a year, for example, deserves to have free access to economy plus.
    About your point on disabled passengers, they are not allowed to be seated in exit rows due to safety reasons (they’d have to be able-bodied enough to operate the emergency exits etc.) But they can of course purchase Economy Plus and be assigned onto the EP rows

  16. Herk

    I don’t think UA’s Economy is a bad idea. 31 inch leg room is quite standard in almost all airlines. There are special situations that force airlines to provide more leg room in long haul flight mainly becasue of load vs. range issue, not because airlines are crazy to give away their revenue. UA pioneered the Economy Plus concept in the US market. I thought it did not do enough. I would like to see a seat removed across to improve seat width as well as leg room. A full Y fare is justifiable for this kind of improvement particularly in long haul flights.
    I fly over 250,000 miles a year. It is a great improvement to have even one extra inch over standard 31 inch leg room. Economy Plus worked quite well for me. Extra money is spent worth.

  17. ryan

    I just wanted to comment in regards to the suggestion that skybus was such a great option. We flew on skybus’s newest plane 553 (their only current plane w/ 156 seats) We are both over 6 feet tall and our knees were 1/2 inch from the seats in front of us. Everything was going fine until the lady in front of us decided to recline. We asked her right away to please put her seat back up and she did, but her husband made a big deal out of it and called a flight attendent over to complain. We were forced to either change seats or suffer major circulation problems. Luckily the flight wasnt that full and we were able to get two seats next to each other further back. Imagine what would happen if the plane had been full ! I can’t deny skybus can be a great deal.. but believe me the difference between 29 inches and 30 inches is night and day if you’re over 6feet tall.

  18. Patrick

    I live in Chicago and I am a consultant which means I fly extensively. I find Economy Plus to be a good deal if you are in the lower-48 and pay the $30-$40. The leg room is great and on the 757s the door to de-plane is in-between first and Economy Plus so your exit is quicker. I can see that it may not be the best idea if you are traveling with a large family due to the expense. I agree with the earlier post that it’s great if you have status because it’s free. It’s probably a way to keep fliers loyal to United.
    I feel that if you (as in anyone) do not like Economy Plus or think it is a bad deal, then fly American and those horrendous MD-80s that have no in-flight entertainment, engines on the fuselage (VERY loud if you are in the back), and smaller overhead storage. Or, you can choose Southwest and fly in leather seats BUT sit in-between a family with three kids under 12 screaming at each other.
    As far as the 737 you flew, United’s 737s are old and gross so ANY class stinks on those. (Most are from when they had a shuttle on the east coast) Stick with their Airbus 319s, and 320s (for the shorter flights) if you can. They are usually on the same routes and are newer and offer in-flight entertainment.
    As far as the food goes I like the idea of the snackbox but there has got to be a way for people to pay $5 or $6 for a small meal on a plane if they choose. I would foot the bill, especially for flights from Chicago to LAX or San Francisco that are almost four hours long and can be during dinner time.

  19. bubai

    This practice of E-plus is not a fair practice. Can you imagine that patients at an emergency room get differential treatments for how much they pay in front? The united E-Plus practice appears to be illegal, since it is at the expense of the leg room benefit of other coach travelers I wish there would be a public legal action against the wrong practice. Remember that the credit card companies recently set off a public lawsuit against their wrong practices in charging international travelers who have used their cards abroad.

  20. YellowRose

    I have lifetime benefits on American at the Executive Platinum level for my 4M miles flown on them. I allowed a client recently to book me on a DFW-Chicago flight believing they would surely choose American. Not so…I took my first ever flight on United in the “back of the back”…what horror to board that plane and pass 10 rows of empty seats to see a completely packed “steerage class” section complete with overstuffed bins above. I knew I had an aisle seat and thought I could endure it until I had to force the fat guy who held the middle seat out of my seat and into his own…except he was too big for his own and he extended over into mine. For the return trip I paid for my own ticket and flew American. Never again on United.

  21. Steve - Izi

    I have just paid an extra $186 for the Economy Plus upgrade on the Chicago / Narita and Narita / Bangkok legs of my upcoming journey. I will suffer the Fort Lauderdale / Chicago leg in regular steerage .
    I hope to God that I have not just wasted $186. Although from what is being said here and elesewhere on the net if I had not I would be suffering big time for the bulk of this journey. I am 5′ 11″ and also have trouble getting comfortable. I do sleep and am equipped for thse international flights with my little kit of earplugs, eye shades and an inflatable neck pilow. However it is always a struggle.
    I do not think I have ever flown United before so this will be a test. If this is not worth it I shall not purchase upgrades for the returning flight nor will I ever fly United again. We will see and maybe I will make a report here.

  22. T

    It’s just a marketing campaign to make money, just like any other business out there. It’s America. You buy a small drink at .99 cents, or a large one for $1.99. You get the same drink, cup’s made the same, but there’s just more of it, and you pay more. Economy plus is not so stupid if you think about it. If you want to pay the lowest fare for that flight, that’s what you get, the lowest available class of seat. If you want to pay alittle bit more, get alittle bit more leg room, you pay more for it. Visually, it is abit of a problem when you see something you didn’t pay for right in your face, staring at you. Empty and for the taking. But hey, stealing is taking something you didn’t pay. There is no reasoning around it. But, if it’s in your nature to steal, then go for it. United will then take out the EP section, and inturn, no seat, even if you want to pay for it, will have any leg room.

  23. Robert Hamilton

    My comment is how stingy UAL has become with Economy Plus. I have Premier status, paid for a ticket, and got two free Standard (not saver) Mileage Plus tickets. This entitles us to 3 seats *outside* of Economy Plus. It used to be that I could take a companion in Economy Plus (because of being a Premier) and the fact that I was using a Standard award (50,000) miles entitled that 3rd free ticket to Economy Plus. It’s rediculous. If I were in Economy Plus, the center seat would be blocked and made available only as needed as reservations piled up. Typically, the single center seats are not upsold, but given to any customer who makes their reservation relatively late. They may or may not be paying a lot for that seat. Anyway, my point is that UAL keeps taking away benefits from their loyal customers. After years of thinking I was special with Economy Plus, I’ve come to understand that American Airlines has it right. As a Gold flyer, I get a seat closer to the front (a benefit in itself), but I’m never asked to sit in a seat that is less than 32″ (757) pitch even when travelling with my family.

  24. Tonya

    I agree the Economy Minus system stinks. I travel often (unfortunately, usually on United) and am not allowed to spend company money on airline upgrades. Even if I were allowed I would probably not do it because it feels too much like a shakedown.

  25. Dalej

    I’m over 6 feet tall so I am happy to pay for the extra legroom. I prefer JetBlue — they only charge $15 a seat — but I’ll pay more if I have to. I recently flew United in Economy Plus. I would prefer a wider seat but this was so much better than a normal coach seat that I’ll keep paying.
    By the way, United was great all the way.

  26. ua536ordBOS

    I used to pay for the E+ upsell because its certainly an improvement that’s worth the money as I am pretty tall. I now get E+ free as a Premiere. In my opinion, it’s essentially a domestic business class. I don’t understand your problem with E+, I have the means to upgrade to First, or Business on int’l flights, but usually just stay in E+ because the only thing I’m upgrading for is the extra legroom, not the mediocre food and “extra service”. It’s annoying when people “self-upgrade” to E+ on semi-full flights, its a perk earned by premieres or an upgrade people pay for and I like to see FAs enforce the separation. In my opinion, Economy Plus, and other superior products, separate United from most other airlines and UA is typically the first choice of this frequent flyer.

  27. uaflyer

    Think of it as “economy-tall” and “economy-short.” At six feet three with wide shoulders, getting into a “normal” economy seat is a real task, much less using a laptop on the tray when the passenger in front reclines the seat all the way back. There are advantages to being short.
    By the way, Virgin America charges extra for the few (6?) seats that have extra legroom.


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