In their never-ending quest to maximize profits, airlines constantly look for ways to cut corners and charge their customers more. One way is to invent new classes of seating, for example, United Airlines Economy Plus, and charge customers for services that used to be included in a coach seat. But are Economy Plus seats worth it?
If you are spending your own money, United Economy Plus and its equivalents from other airlines are not worth the additional cost. And even if the price is not an issue for you, you should not buy those seats.
This article will explore the differences between United Airlines Economy and Economy Plus seats to help potential customers decide whether or not the seats are worth the additional expense. Later it will explain why airlines have invented so many new classes in the last decade.
Economy vs. Economy Plus
There were only three classes of airline seats in recent memory:
- First-class for the rich.
- Business-class for the manager class.
- Coach for everyone else.
But in the early years of the 21st century, things started to change. To offset the ever-increasing cost of jet fuel and executive compensation, airlines started looking for ways to charge more money.
There are not many differences between the United Economy and Economy Plus. Let’s take a closer look at the differences right now.
Economy Plus passengers may get to board the plane earlier than economy or basic economy passengers. Whether or not you get priority boarding depends on how full the flight is, the route, and frankly whether or not the gate agents bother to announce it.
United Airlines has divided up its economy section into three subsections:
Basic economy passengers are always in boarding group 5 and the last group to board unless they are Premier members, certain Chase cardholders, or Star Alliance Gold members. Passengers with any of those services get priority boarding.
Boarding group 2 is reserved for passengers with preferred seating, members of the Star Alliance awards programs, and holders of several special travel rewards credit cards.
Interestingly, the back of the aircraft is the safest in a crash. The aft section of the aircraft is built stronger than other sections to support the tail fins. Meanwhile, the cockpit and first-class cabin are the most dangerous in the event of a crash.
The standard United Economy or Basic Economy seat has between 30” and 31” (76.2 and 78.7 cm) of space allotted to them. Economy plus seats have a whopping 36” (91.4 cm) allotted to them.
Most of the space is occupied by the actual seat, which is the same size, but Economy Plus seats do have between five and six more inches of legroom.
For a taller person, this makes a very attractive option.
As a matter of fact, an Economy Plus seat has about the same amount of legroom as a standard coach seat had in the year 2000. Airlines have been gradually shrinking seats in order to fit more in each cabin.
One thing that has changed in the last 20 years, other than the size of airline seats, is consumer electronics.
Practically everyone today has at least one electronic device on their person at all times, like their phones. And since the FAA and its international equivalents dropped the fiction that a cellular signal could cause a plane to crash, many passengers use their phones throughout their flights.
The reason airlines used to ban the use of phones in flight was actually because they could become dangerous projectiles inside of the cabin during turbulence or a crash.
United Airlines Basic Economy and Economy seats may or may not have power sources, such as USB ports, for every seat. Often they will have two ports for a row of three seats.
Whether or not they work is another matter entirely.
United Economy Plus and Premium Plus seats are guaranteed to have one charging port per seat. The ports will either be built into the armrests or the in-flight entertainment system on the seatback in front of you.
A good external battery pack capable of running a phone, iPod touch, or other electronic gadgets for up to 8 hours typically costs less than the upgrade to Economy Plus or Premium Economy.
And you only have to pay for them once.
The biggest difference between United Airlines Economy and Economy Plus seats is the price difference. For flights within the continental United States, an Economy Plus ticket costs at least $20 more, with an average additional charge of $80.
On international flights, where that extra legroom would be extremely welcome, an Economy Plus seat may cost up to $200 more.
United Airlines’ points system is somewhat convoluted. Their current policy is that economy seats can only earn premier points if they pay for “preferred seating.” But every passenger who buys an Economy Plus or Premium Economy seat can earn premier points.
Equivalents From Other Airlines
United Airlines is not the only airline to offer slightly better versions of economy seats. In fact, doing so is trendy in the air travel industry. The table below shows the equivalents of Economy Plus offered by other airlines, the pitch of each seat.
Please note the numbers in this table were for the Boeing 737 and 757 aircraft models, as they make up the bulk of American domestic air fleets.
*American Airlines and Delta Airlines are tied for the narrowest seats at 17.2” (43.68 cm).
**JetBlue has both the widest standard economy seats (17.8” or 45.21 cm) and the most legroom and was also the least expensive on average when our source documents were published.
***Spirit Airlines offers the least legroom by three whole inches (28” or 71.12 cm), but the second widest seats at 17.75” (45.08 cm).
Icelandair is the best airline featured on the table in terms of service, though they do not offer direct service between American cities. They service most major European tourist destinations and will give you a free two-night stay in their own hotel chain in Iceland.
They are massively better than any American-based airline.
JetBlue’s economy seats are the best option for American domestic air service. If I were traveling on a route they service, I’d probably choose them. I would not choose Spirit AIrlines under any circumstances.
Frontier Airlines’ entire fleet consists of Airbus models, so they were not included on the table. Their standard seat width is 18” (45.72 cm), with seat pitches ranging from 28” (71.12 cm) to 31” (78.74 cm) in the economy.
I’ve flown with Frontier a few times over a decade ago, and it was certainly better than Delta.
Is Economy Plus Worth It?
Ultimately, whether or not Economy Plus tickets are worth it to you are depending on the answers to two questions:
- How much is additional legroom worth to you?
- Is it your money?
How Much Is Additional Legroom Worth to You?
I can’t answer this question for you. I don’t know you.
I, the writer of this article, am just over 6’ (1.83 m) tall with unusually long legs for a man. I hate flying these days, partially because I can only get enough legroom in exit rows. But I would not spend my own money on an Economy Plus or Premium Economy ticket.
I don’t care about when I board, I have several external battery packs and can survive sitting in an uncomfortable position for a few hours. If my legs get sore, I get up and walk up and down the cabin.
I would only pay for an Economy Plus, Premium Economy, or their equivalents from another airline (I usually fly Delta) if I had a medical condition making it painful or dangerous to sit in a regular-sized seat.
Or if I suddenly grew a few inches taller and could not fit in a normal seat.
Is It Your Money?
Who is paying for your ticket? Are you paying out of pocket, or is someone else?
I said I wouldn’t spend my own money on Economy Plus or Premium Economy tickets. But I would spend my employer’s or a tour company’s money. Travel agencies still exist and will often include a seat upgrade in the price of a trip.
If I were going on a business trip with my employer covering the airfare, I might very respectfully ask permission to book an Economy Plus or Premium economy ticket. Those sections toward the front of the economy cabin can be considered a business class for the proletariat.
Let your boss pay for it.
Airline Classes Explained
So why do airlines have so many classes anyway? Being for-profit corporations, everything they do is aimed at making money. That is legally all they are required to do.
How Airlines Make Money
If you have paid attention to corporate media at any time in the last decade, you have probably heard or read about how airlines are constantly having trouble turning a profit and begging for government handouts.
And due to the cost of jet fuel, stock buybacks, legalized political bribery, executive compensation, and shareholder dividends, airlines typically have trouble breaking even. But they are legally required to maximize profits.
Here’s a video from the YouTube channel Wendover Productions explaining that airlines make most of their money from first-class ticket sales:
They turn a profit in business class and often lose money on the economy. Economy passengers are just there to fill space.
As mentioned above, Economy Plus, Premium Economy, and their counterparts from other airlines do not provide many additional amenities. The extra legroom does not cost the airline much additional money.
But by offering the option to get more legroom, they can get passengers to pay more.
Calculated Misery Explained
The current business model of most airlines is called “calculated misery.” How miserable do airlines have to make you before you pay them more money?
Every inch airlines take from legroom, and every USB port they remove from the armrests increases the chance that an economy customer will pay for an upgrade. Economy Plus and Premium economy do not cost United Airlines anymore to offer but make them more money.
Calculated misery happens when you deregulate airlines and allow people who only care about making money for themselves to control them.
The Future of Airline Seating
The future of airline seating for the majority of the American people is most likely bleak. The US federal government is not going to protect our comfort from their greed. Airline seating will only continue to get worse.
Several nightmarish concepts for future airline seating have been proposed in recent years.
Double-decker seating concepts won a number of design competitions between 2015 and 2021. They are not necessarily nightmarish, except that one 2020 winner would put passengers sitting on the lower level’s heads at eye level with upper-level passenger’s crotches.
The “vertical seat,” which straps passengers in a standing position, is wildly popular with airline executives. Several airlines based in South America, China, the USA, and Europe, appear to be waiting for the others to adopt it. No one wants to be the first to adopt it.
The future is not necessarily all bright for first-class passengers who are not wealthy enough to afford a private jet. Many airlines are phasing out first-class seats altogether, and the rich only have each other to blame.
First-class seats may be the most profitable, but most rich people aren’t stupid. Many first-class passengers are willing to accept the less luxurious amenities offered by business class seats in the interest of saving money.
United Airlines Economy Plus seating is not worth the additional cost in most cases. If you have the option, JetBlue economy seats are the best option for most people.
- CNN Travel: These Double-Decker Airplane Cabin Concepts Could Be The Future Of Flying
- Seat Guru: Frontier Planes and Seat Maps
- Seat Guru: Icelandair Planes and Seat Maps
- Seatmastro: Airlines with the Most Seat Space in Economy Class
- United Airlines: Basic Economy
- United Airlines: Boarding Process
- United Airlines: Economy
- United Airlines: Economy Plus
- United Airlines: Seating Options
- Vox: “Calculated Misery”: How Airlines Profit From Your Miserable Flying Experience
- YouTube: “The Economics of Airline Class”
- Wikipedia: Vertical Seat