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.