Warning! Not all premium seats are created equal

Airline seat pricing never made much sense to begin with, but leave it to United Airlines to take it to the next level.

At least that’s the view of Frederick Kearney, who contacted me recently to share his story of ridiculous seat pricing on a United Airlines flight from Bogota back to the States. He calls it a “nickel and dime” effort of the highest order, and after hearing from him, it’s hard to disagree.

Kearney’s experience leaves me wondering where the absurdity will stop. With United Airlines on an apology tour of sorts, maybe restoring reason and compassion to its pricing would be a good first step to making customers happy.

“Per company regulations, I had to travel coach, but paid the premium seat fee for the front,” he explains.

United refers to this as Economy Plus, but old-timers who remember airlines pre-deregulation will just call it economy class. It has about the same amount of personal space as the original coach class section.

“When I checked in, I saw a seat a couple rows ahead of mine and tried to change to the preferable, but still premium, seat,” he says.

But no.

“I got a message that I’d have to pay an extra $10 for that seat,” he says.

Kearney asked why at the United Club. A representative said if he wanted to move to a more “expensive” premium seat, he had to pay for it.

What if he wanted to downgrade to a “less” expensive premium seat? Sorry, no refund, he was told.

Talk about a double standard.

“It seems that they are pricing these seats based on a continuing demand basis, so the prices will fluctuate depending on whatever they think they can extort from passengers at the moment of purchase,” he says.

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Yep, that’s what it looks like from here, too.

“Once you reserve a particular seat, you’re stuck with it even if better ones open up, unless you want to pay more,” he says.

All of which raises the question: Why are some “premium” seats more expensive? I thought all of the seats in United’s “Economy Plus” were equally good. Did I miss the memo where they said “some seats are more equal than others”?

I must have.

Now, price differences between economy, business and first — that I can understand. But segmenting it further just leads to irritated customers like Kearney. And to puzzled advocates like me.

I understand why United is doing this. It wants to make more money. But where does it end? Will United quote a low fare for one of those awful seats next to the bathroom (you know what I’m talking about) and then tell you to take a hike when you don’t want the bad seat? How far will they make us go to avoid pain and suffering onboard?

Maybe the segmenting has gone too far. Maybe this is ridiculous.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at chris@elliott.org.

  • Bruce Burger

    “I thought all of the seats in United’s “Economy Plus” were equally good.”

    What on earth made you think that? Just looking at a plane — any plane, any airline — should tell you that there are all sorts of variables — aisle/middle/window, bulkhead, exit row, near bathroom, etc. — that affect seat desirability. The websites that rate seats (seatguru.com, seatexpert.com) also make that clear.
    Airlines could make just as much money by charging a little more to everyone and not charging extra for better seats, bags, etc. But most customers repeatedly show a preference for bare-bottom fares no matter what the inconvenience, so United offers those fares and then entices a few people to pay more for comfort. If they didn’t do that, they would lose business to other airlines that do.

  • ctporter

    No, not all seats are equal in “value”. They may have the same pitch, they may be the same order (window, middle, or aisle) but as they say in real estate: location, location, location! closer to the front IS more valuable to some, and evidently worth a higher price. Simple

  • Bill___A

    I don’t know what the big deal is. Having people jump to seats which are less expensive and asking for their ten dollars back would be a logistical nightmare. Charging people more to go to a “more preferable” seat stops people from buying, say, the cheapest economy plus seat with limited recline and jumping to a more expensive one once they board.
    Airlines decided to charge extra for these seats. It is a quick and easy process. I just bought United return tickets this afternoon. I picked an economy plus seat on each segment. The prices were clearly shown.

    I’ve never had to take the urge to switch economy plus seats when I have already bought one, I stick with my decision.

    I really don’t understand criticizing things that make sense. I understand the not wanting to pay extra for certain seats, but we know this. I’m sorry, I just don’t think it is a big deal, and I deal with this system quite frequently.

  • Randy Culpepper

    Frederick canceled out his own argument when he described the second seat as “preferable”. Why else would he want to move there from his Economy Plus seat?

    Also, when adjusted for inflation, that Economy Plus seat is still probably much cheaper than the coach seat was pre-deregulation.

  • backprop

    So he’s mad that he sat in the seat that he selected?

  • DChamp56

    One word: “Greed”.

  • Jeff W.

    Others before have said it already. The seats toward the front have more value than those in the back. The middle seats are less valuable than those on the aisle or window. United has figured it out and charges accordingly. And they are not the only airline to do so. American does it. Delta does it.

    If the flyer had an upper tier status, those seats would have been free. If it was a lower tier status, it would have been free if selected on the day of the flight The latter is a risk, of course, but he would have been able to change seats for free. (Chris doesn’t like the status/loyalty program thing, I know.)

  • 42NYC

    I am sure MANY travelers would happily take the seat next to the bathroom if it meant they would save on their plane ticket.

  • Steve Rabin

    Actually, UA is almost somewhat sorta transparent with this. If you are willing to pay for an upgrade from “Economy minus” to the Economy Plus section, they show on their website when you choose the seat that aisles and windows cost more than middle seats, which clearly are not as desirable. And emergency exit rows cost more than normal E+ seats due to the extra legroom.

    The reality is that you are paying for real estate on an airplane nowadays, and the more real estate you occupy, the more it costs.

  • Laura in NJ

    By that argument, should wider (i.e., obese) people also pay a premium for their seat, since they are therefore “occupying more real estate”? (Particularly when that extra real estate they are occupying is often that of the adjacent traveler.)

  • cscasi

    Sorry, they only give you extra legroom. If they gave you extra width, they would probably have to take a seat out of a row and then imagine how much more the premium/ economy plus seats in that row would cost. The airlines are getting great at giving one as little as possible.

  • MarkKelling

    Yes, “wide” passengers do pay a premium for their seats — they have to buy a second seat when they sit in economy.

    Of course this is enforced like most other rules airlines have. In other words, only when they want to and it depends on how “wide” the passenger is in the viewpoint of the gate agent. I am sure most of those passengers do not believe they actually occupy more space than what a single seat gives them. (And I am a guy who used to be “wide” and now fits into a single seat properly, i.e. both armrests down and no seat belt extender.)

  • vmacd

    I thought paying more for an Economy Plus seat made sense for a long flight, but now I’m not so sure. If I just booked an Economy seat, I can log onto United’s website and easily change my seat to another seat in the same class. I’ll usually check close to my flight date try to find a seat in a less crowded row. But once you book an Economy Plus seat, you’re locked in! If you try to change to another seat in the same class, you have to cancel your original seat and then be charged for the new seat. You might find that as you get closer to your flight date that the cost of these Economy Plus seats rise. So if you paid less for your seat 4 weeks ago, and even though your seat has now also risen in price, you can’t do a simple switch. You have to cancel your seat and pay more for a similar seat in the same class. So even though you’re paying more, you have less flexibility than with the cheaper Economy seat.

  • BMG4ME

    Once you are in a Delta Comfort+ seat, you can move to any other. However you wouldn’t necessarily be able to move to an exit row seat (or the other way round).

  • LZ126

    Same goes for cruise ship cabins. They might be of identical size, but depending on the location, there are a dozen different price points and I don’t think the cruise line would give you a free upgrade to a more “preferable” one if you walked by and found one unoccupied.

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