Want a comfy economy class airline seat? Be prepared to pay

November 10, 2011
Fares from Washington DC:

    When airlines merge, their respective honchos get up behind the podium and promise the flying public all sorts of good things – better this, improved that, more efficiency. Most sane people ignore them. After all, if the two airlines were all that great, would they be merging? 

    In the case of United and Continental – now working to complete a merger announced in 2010 – things started about the same as they always do; along the way, there have been some happy surprises, okay (wait, what are those again, we're blanking!) and some disappointments. One of the latest: An almost-footnote on the recent announcement regarding changes to their frequent flyer program, Mileage Plus, informing lower-level premier members (those holding 50,000 miles or less) that they will be barred from accessing the airline's coveted Economy Plus seats in coach until the day of departure.

    This is a big deal. United's Economy Plus is a very real perk, unlike some other extra legroom schemes that have been rolled out in recent years. Check your status with United though, because that perk may be going away.

    It's bad news for those frequent-ish flyers, those who joined up with a bell-and-whistle-free airline like United precisely because it took less time to get them to treat you like a human being than it does on other airlines. After all, with just a little effort, you automatically qualified for a perk that lower-level Delta SkyMiles members can only dream of. 

    Well, party's over. Starting in 2012, those who can't make Premier Gold – 50,000 miles – will be sent to the back of the bus. No more automatic sliding into more-legroom land. But hey – if there are any seats by the day of departure (after the higher-level Mileage Plus customers have had their wicked way with the supply), you get to pick through the leftovers. Suddenly, those flyers not in it deep enough to stick with United have a lot less incentive to hang around.

    United's not the only airline that's looking less attractive to younger frequent flyers after a merger – take Airtran, for example. (Please!) They got snapped up by Southwest. Now, Airtran's A+ Rewards program was actually pretty great – four flights got you a free one, and don't forget that cheap (and easy to upgrade to) business class. When the merger was announced, it was clear that the fun was about to end. Southwest plans to overhaul the product completely, converting the Airtran planes to single class and bringing its customers over to their own frequent flyer program, Rapid Rewards. Suddenly, investing any time or effort into a continued relationship with Airtran looks a lot less attractive.

    If extra space is the goal, not to worry – this is the airline industry in the 21st century. Everything's for sale, and if you want to play you have to pay. Almost every airline now sells more legroom or otherwise desirable seats in economy class for a fee. See our handy chart showing who offers what.

    Or, you can always try your luck with the occassionally free exit row seat – check out our recently compiled how-to chart here.