United Begins Selling Premium Economy: What Does It Mean For Upgrades?

Of the “big three” US airlines, United is the last to start offering premium economy on longhaul flights.

Surprisingly this is an area where American was first, followed by Delta (usually it’s the other way around).

United Airlines’ new premium economy, called Premium Plus, will be going on sale soon. United has announced that Premium Plus seats will go on sale Monday, December 3, 2018, for flights starting March 30, 2019.

What United routes will have Premium Plus?

By the end of May 2019, it’s expected that the new premium economy experience will be available on 21 routes, as follows:

  • As of March 30, 2019, Premium Plus will be available:
    • From Newark to Brussels, Frankfurt, Hong Kong, Mumbai, Paris, Tel Aviv, and Tokyo Narita
    • From San Francisco to Auckland, Beijing, Frankfurt, Hong Kong, Taipei, Tel Aviv, and Tokyo Narita
    • From Washington to Brussels
  • As of April 29, 2019, Premium Plus will be available:
    • From San Francisco to London Heathrow
    • From Newark to Barcelona and Paris
    • From Washington to Paris
  • As of May 22, 2019, Premium Plus will be available:
    • From Newark to Brussels and Dublin
    • From Washington to Tel Aviv

What I’m most curious about is what premium economy means for upgrades and award tickets.

How will United handle premium economy upgrades?

United has announced that customers with Global Premier Upgrades who book economy tickets will continue to be able to upgrade directly to business class. However, they can also use Global Premier Upgrades to upgrade from economy to premium economy, if they prefer.

So that means eligible members can request upgrades in one of three ways:

  • Only to business class
  • Only to premium economy (though I’m not sure why anyone would do that)
  • To business class and premium economy

The other benefit is that you can upgrade all economy fares to premium economy, so they don’t have the same fare class restrictions as upgrading to business class.

When it comes to using miles to upgrade, United says that you’ll also be able to use miles to upgrade to either premium economy or business class, though updated prices will eventually be introduced.

What about award tickets in United premium economy?

United will also be introducing MileagePlus award redemptions for travel in premium economy, though those prices haven’t been published yet.

How does United’s policy compare to American and Delta?

The good news is that as of now all three US carriers allow upgrades from economy to business class. To compare United’s new policy to that of American and Delta:

  • American doesn’t let you redeem miles to book an award ticket in or upgrade to premium economy; the only way to get into premium economy is to pay cash, or otherwise Executive Platinum and Concierge Key members receive complimentary space available upgrades on the day of departure
  • Delta lets you redeem miles either to book an award ticket in or to upgrade to premium economy, and you can also use their Global Upgrades for a premium economy upgrade

Long term we’ll see how this all plays out

Historically systemwide upgrades issued by the “big three” US carriers have only been valid for one cabin upgrades.

I’m not surprised that for now all three carriers continue to allow upgrades from economy to business class. That’s because the airlines love to match one another in a short timeframe, so it’s not surprising that they’re waiting until United starts selling premium economy before making any major changes.

So while I don’t know the timeline, I would guess that:

  • American and United will soon introduce premium economy award tickets, and I’d be surprised if this didn’t lead to at least a slight devaluation in business class award prices
  • Eventually I imagine that American, Delta, and United will all add restrictions when it comes to how you can redeem systemwide upgrades for a two cabin upgrade; that could be within the next year, or it could be a couple of years down the road

Do you think US airlines will add restrictions for upgrading from economy to business class on planes with premium economy?

(Photo credit: United)

Comments

  1. Does this mean we’ll be able to book PE on LH and NH (among others) on UA.com now to get full PQD and PQM?

  2. The good thing should be that GPU’s can be used to Upgrade Economy K / L / T to Premium Economy then. So even if one’s not flying W and up, it’s still an ok opportunity to use the GPUs instead of letting them expire.

    “For members traveling on upgrade-eligible fares, there will be no fare class restriction for members who purchase a United Economy seat and request a move to a United® Premium Plus seat”

  3. You left out one of the major item. If you have a GPU/MPU and you try to upgrade to Polaris, if you clear–great. If Polaris is not available and there’s a seat in Prem+, they’ll move you to Prem+ and waitlist you for Polaris. If both Polaris and Prem+ are not available, you can waitlist for both cabins and get the best seat when it’s available. I think its safe to say as United upgrades higher status and fare classes from Prem+ to Polaris at check in, more seats will them open up in Prem+. Not a bad trade off.

    This is a pretty massive upgrade to the GPU/MPU system.

  4. I just booked a revenue ticket EWR->LAX for 2/15/19 at 7:00am. Aircraft is 787-10, which is not listed on other UA nor seatguru. First three rows of Econ on the sides are only two seats, not three. I called Premier desk and they said that it’s probably aircraft introduced for PP.

    Long story short: if you want a Premier Plus seat at an Economy price, find a route, and book right now. If there are two seats per side in the first three rows of the Econ cabin, it’s PP.

  5. I’m really tired of this “big 3” story in the US. I believe that was called an oligopoly in my economics class. I’m increasingly glad I have all my credit card points as I don’t care as much which airline I fly domestically.

  6. I am lifetime gold on AA. I received a free transatlantic upgrade to PE in March from JFK to LHR when I checked in 24 hours in advance. I recently had reason to call AA to confirm that this was still the case which conflicts with your guidance above.

  7. @Ivan x
    I booked SFO-HKG for Feb and May at $675 K class during Black Friday. I scored a presumptive PP seats (19C) on all legs.
    Today I checked my itineraries and bad news occurred: on the return leg in May the NRT-SFO seat was bumped back to 30C which is bulkhead in Econ+. I called UA and they refused to honor my original seat assignment as 19 doesn’t exist on the PP planes. I felt it was a tad bit unfair since IMO its a bit of a bait-and-switch. They allowed elites to access these seats but when we did take advantage of the loophole they created, UA changed their minds.
    It’s still a good fare and I plan to keep and eye on my Feb trip.
    I’m hoping that since it takes place before the Mar 30 “go live” that I’ll get to experience PP at a discounted rate and decide if it’s worth the extra price…
    Luckily, I’m doing Polaris on the way over in May and I may just bite the bullet and do the same for Feb if the same downgrade occurs.

  8. Hmmm, didn’t I see this on View From the Wing yesterday? I’ve started to make a note to see how after they post to it posting here, usually it’s about a day, sometimes two. Funny I don’t see things posted here later posting there, it’s just a one-way street.

  9. @DeePeePDX — same just happened to me.
    I had SFO to LHR in May 2019. Specifically chose row 19 for bulkhead at ticketing.
    After reading your comment I checked my itinerary and sure enough — moved to row 30 and the seat configuration has indeed been updated.

  10. I have to really question how Lucky thought that the PE sale and route announcement itself somehow carried equal importance with the far less important sub-topic of upgrades. The release of PE for sale at United is a huge deal, and the important thing is the added granularity it offers pax to purchase the product they need/value – especially in the chasm between Coach and Business. On the note of upgrades, hopefully this will hasten the phase-out of free cabin upgrades, which should never occur outside of irrops. Book your desired class with your original booking (whether using miles or cash).

  11. How does the new PE fares fall in the GPU upgrade priority queue relative to regular coach fares?

    UA prioritizes upgrades based on status and fare class… Does this mean anyone waitlisted on PE fare will upgrade ahead of a member of the same status level in coach? Or will UA treat PE and Y fares the same where a 1K on Y fare would have higher priority over a 1K on a deeply discounted PE fare?

  12. You typically need to buy a more expensive ticket to use Global upgrades, whereas the miles and cash can be used on cheaper upgrades, which you only pay if you get the upgrade. So it will be interesting to see if the difference in fares (often up to 50% on Tokyo to Newark) equates to getting PE, from which one upgrades to Polaris.

  13. omgstfualready: That´s what I thought. Not a lot of travel reports going on and others are usually smarter, faster, more entertaining about news… Just saying.

  14. Folks…after my 45 minutes with a supervisor based out of ORD, I can report the following regarding upgrades. All of this is relative to the route I usually fly which is SFO-HKG.

    It’s still $600 and a 30k co-pay for PP and Polaris upgrades from Econ+. Apparently they will “hold” whatever seat is available. This mystifies me. I think it should be tiered at maybe $300 and 15k for Econ+ to PP and then another round of the same numbers to go from PP to Polaris.

    I told them that it’s just plain stupid to pay that much in cash and miles for PP which is vastly inferior to Polaris. My new flight preferences will be to buy a PP ticket and upgrade to Polaris. However, with this current scheme I have zero incentive to buy a PP ticket when it just costs the same to go into Polaris from Econ+.

    I hope I am making sense here bc IMO UA isn’t…

  15. @DeePeePDX
    Just checked my SFO to LHR flight.
    Three economy upgrade options (all waitlist)
    1) 20K + $550 > Polaris
    2) 20K no cash > PremPlus
    3) 20K +$550 > either option which clears.

    I’d be inclined for option 2 as I have tons of UA miles and no cash out of pocket. However, depending on the seats one holds I’d hate to spend 20K + $550 to go with door #3 and only get upgraded to PP.

    I’m waiting to see what the actual fare difference are though as it’s early Monday and tickets are pricing yet on their website.

  16. I purchased a PE seat on AA to AKL months ago when they were quite reasonably priced. Now I’m hoping that my chances for a SWA will be enhanced – used the same strategy to Sao Paulo recently and it worked. Even better – they did not deduct the SWA! Mistake, generosity or policy?

  17. At a start the first change will be that they will limit GPU use for premium economy, like they do for business. Then maybe up the fare class for getting from economy direct to business or add a fee to hop over. This is a bummer for those of us grunts who HAVE to buy economy class tickets.

    I’d like to see a quick comparison of the three premium economy products on US airlines, AA, Delta and United in re pitch, leg room, leg rest and foot rest or just leg rest, food upgrades and other perks. Thanks!

  18. @schrap I got the same options on my May SFO-HKG trip with the numbers I mentioned above. I’m in Polaris on the way over. I’m just trying to avoid 30G on the return. I’d also like to actually try PP because it seems that my February trip will be on an “old” 777-300ER in 19 with nobody in the middle seat–fine by me. Fingers crossed…
    I went ahead and upgraded my May NRT-SFO leg with miles (I’ve got loads too). It was waitlisted, but when I clicked the “pay and pick seat” button it actually allowed me to pick 20B and then showed up in the seating screen. The multiple tabs for seating maps when you are waitlisted did not show up. I should have screen-shotted it. When I rechecked it after a refresh, the seat was gone and there were several tabs just as one would expect for a waitlist seat.

    The UA rep I just talked to said that she has had a few people call in an report this bug already.
    The reason? UA has not added PP seats into their upgrade system yet and will not do so until after the new year. I would say that if you’ve got the miles, go ahead and get on the waitlist. You’ll probably be the first and it’ll clear without issue.

  19. LH operated flights are showing up on united.com with Premium Economy (“R” fare) priced below regular economy in some cases for travel just before the holidays. Booked a round-trip. United website shows the ticket as “premium economy” with 0 miles, 0 EQM, 0 EQS, but full EQD. LH website shows the ticket as “business”, but allows seat selection in the premium economy cabin. Maybe some of the systems still treat “R” fare as a business class award/upgrade ticket it used to be. I guess I’ll know in two weeks how it all plays out.

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