Warning! Not all premium seats are created equal

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By Christopher Elliott

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.

Economy Plus

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.

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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.

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.

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. (Related: If they didn’t tell me about this $200 change fee, do I still have to pay it?)

It wants to make more money

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. (Here’s how to get a refund on a nonrefundable airline ticket.)

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.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. He is based in Panamá City.

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