United Begins Charging For ‘Preferred’ Seats in Economy

Dec 17, 2018

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Earlier this year, United Airlines referenced a new “preferred” seating product, framed as an opportunity for certain corporate travelers to snag a seat closer to the front of the plane.

These are regular economy seats — not Economy Plus, with extra legroom and benefits — but instead of being available to most customers free of charge, they’re now reserved for many corporate flyers, elites and non-status customers willing to pay a small fee to avoid getting stuck in the back.

Now, several months after we first learned about this new product, United’s “preferred” seating has now fully rolled out to all United and United Express flights.

The number of preferred seats varies based on the aircraft — larger planes don’t necessarily have a greater number of preferred seating rows. Take an upcoming 787-9 Dreamliner flight I have booked from San Francisco (SFO) to Sydney (SYD), for example. While many have already been selected, there are clearly just a few rows of preferred seats available, located just behind Economy Plus in the rear coach cabin.

On my connecting 757 flight from Newark (EWR) to SFO, however, there are many more rows of preferred seating — more than half the cabin, in fact.

On that 757 flight, Economy Plus starts at a whopping $119, while preferred seats cost 9 bucks, regardless of which one I pick.

On that transpacific leg, meanwhile, preferred seats are still $9, even though Economy Plus jumps to $205 (and up).

Note that all United elite members and select corporate travelers get access to Preferred seating for free, though Gold elites and above can select Economy Plus free of charge at booking, and Silver members get free Economy Plus at check-in — if available, you’ll still be better off grabbing one of those extra-legroom seats.

If you don’t want to spring for the blue-seat upgrade, there are still a few benefits to sitting closer to the front. First, you’ll get off the plane earlier, which is especially helpful when you’re gunning for an earlier spot in the immigration queue or traveling without a checked bag. You’ll also be closer to the beginning of the meal service, which could mean more meal and drink options, or just a chance to eat a few minutes earlier in the flight.

Are preferred seats worth an extra $9 if you don’t have status? If the only free options are middle seats, I wouldn’t hesitate to “upgrade” — otherwise, sitting a row or two behind wouldn’t be the end of the world, especially on a short domestic hop, in which case I’d rather spend those 9 bucks on a drink or snack, instead.

But while the math is easy enough for one ticket, this change hits the occasional budget family traveler the hardest as there are now fewer free seat assignments available on United. If your family books tickets once the rows of free seat assignments are full, you’ll either have to split up, pay more for seat assignments in preferred rows (times multiple people) or roll the dice. This is already a known problem for families on American Airlines where there are a very limited number of free seat assignments available, and one of the reasons that American ranked lower in the TPG Best Airlines for Families study than the other major US airlines.

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