Wait, Do United Premiers REALLY Get Economy Plus Seating On Basic Economy Tickets?

Filed Under: MileagePlus, Reward Programs

United’s basic economy offering is one of the most punitive in the industry. When flying on one of these fares, United advises that you won’t get to choose your seat, won’t get a proper carry-on, won’t get a chance at an upgrade, and perhaps most importantly, you won’t earn Premier Qualifying Miles or Premier Qualifying Dollars.

It’s worth noting that Premier members and United credit card holders do get a carry-on. And everyone still earns award miles. But the lack of PQMs/PQDs is mostly a deal-breaker for me. So as a longtime Premier 1K member, I’ve generally avoided these fares.

Even so, there are times when they do make sense even for Premiers.

I recently took the plunge and flew United from Denver to Chicago on a basic economy ticket since the savings were substantial. I was definitely curious to see how the seating would be assigned.

Seat assignments when booking United basic economy

First, a quick review of the warnings the United website issues when trying to book a basic economy ticket. The website reminds you of all the bad things that could happen if you book a basic economy ticket. They even make you acknowledge it by checking a box.

The next page explicitly informs you that you won’t be able to take advantage of your Premier member seating benefits — presumably including Economy Plus — when booking a basic economy fare.

And then when you are finally shown a seat map, Economy Plus is completely grayed out. You can, however, pay a modest fee to select a seat in regular economy.

Checking in for a United basic economy flight as a Premier

I was curious to see if I would be assigned a regular economy seat at check-in. And if so, was it preassigned or was it assigned dynamically at the time of check-in?

I took a screenshot of the seating diagram before I checked in for my flight for comparison. The gray boxes are occupied, while the blue and white ones are available Economy Plus and regular economy seats, respectively. Clearly, there were regular economy seats available, specifically a bunch of middles.

According to the all of the warnings, I should expect to be assigned one of the middles in regular economy. Blah.

I then proceeded to click through the check-in process. When I got to my boarding pass, I had been assigned seat 15A, a window in Economy Plus and obviously a pretty decent seat. Interesting.

Even more interesting, the seat I had been assigned — 15A — showed as occupied even before I started the check-in process. So presumably, it had been preassigned to me at some point between when I booked the ticket and when I checked-in. Of course, I didn’t know what seat I had been assigned until it showed up on my boarding pass.

I did try to change my seat assignment, but as expected, I was unsuccessful in doing so.

Do Premiers always get Economy Plus seats even on basic economy tickets?

If this were a one-off example, I might chalk it up to a fluke. But my wife, who is also a United Premier 1K, flew a short segment in basic economy last fall. She was also assigned an Economy Plus seat during online check-in, despite there being regular economy seats available. In other words, her experience was identical to mine, even though her flight was before the changes that rolled out in February.

So it seems to me that Premier 1Ks, or maybe all Premiers, can end up with Economy Plus seats. What I don’t know if what happens if Economy Plus is already full when you start the check-in process. I suppose if that were to happen, we might have some clue as to when the seating assignment algorithm runs.

Bottom line

United says that Premiers flying on basic economy tickets won’t receive complimentary Economy Plus seating. I now have a few experiences that indicate that might not be the case. Whether this always happens, happens only when regular economy is projected to be full, or only happens to Premier 1Ks, I can’t say.

So I’m definitely curious to hear your experiences with being assigned an Economy Plus seat when flying on a basic economy ticket as a Premier member of United MileagePlus.

Have you been assigned an Economy Plus seat as a Premier flying on a basic economy ticket? If so, were there regular economy seats available at the time that the computer could have assigned instead?

  1. Hmm, based on spacing row 15 looks like economy plus. But often the row in front of exit rows probably aren’t as desirable because of no incline.

  2. Just flew SFO-ORD this morning. Exit row middle was occupied by a Group 5 person. They will pit you whereever, regardless of status.

  3. Seems like another reasonable explanation is the algorithm favors not filling in a middle seat in E- and instead gives out E+ seats, which seems reasonable. Although this theory doesn’t exactly hold as they filled up all of row 15 vs spreading it out more. Were you traveling solo or with other people? Perhaps it favored keeping a group together vs splitting up parties.

    This really only screws over the Silver elites who can’t preselect E+ until 24-hours out if they are provisioning basic economy seats before then.

  4. Also a 1K, but whenever I see the disparity between economy and basic fares are huge (more than $20), I always fly another airline. If I’m going to spend money and get no PQM benefit, I may as well fly Southwest or Jetblue.

    There is no loyalty on either side, so either I’m saving money or getting a benefit. Basic economy is not worth the hassle…..

  5. I recently flew from Orlando to Dallas through Atlanta on Delta. Although I don’t have status with Delta, the same happened to me.
    On the MCO-ATL leg, most seats were taken and the last few seats were middle seats. In the end, my party of 4 all got to sit together in the window/aisle on both sides in the front of the plane (not economy plus though)
    But on the ATL-MCO leg, we not only got to sit together, we got upgraded to economy plus. I still don’t know why. Both flights had regular economy seats left. That was my first time flying Basic Economy and I actually enjoyed it. Best part was my (last minute ticket on spring break) was less than $100 while the normal ticket was over $450

  6. United card holders don’t get a carry on when flying United Basic Economy. They get priority boarding and a free checked bag, but nothing else.

  7. Travis, can you find a new hobby, please? Writing the occasional irrelevant and uninforming blog post every couple of weeks isn’t helping anybody.

  8. @AdamH I am Premier Silver and had a round trip from ORD to LGA in basic eco together with my girlfriend (same PNR) who doesn’t have status. On the outbound flight we were given seats next to each other in E+ but on the fully booked return leg I was given an aisle E+ whereas the system gave her a middle in E. I asked the guy next to her on the aisle if he wants to switch and move up to E+ which he happily accepted. So I guess it depends on how full the flight is, but apparently the system rather puts elites in E+ and splits people traveling together up, than putting them next to each other in E.

  9. Ahh. The age old question about how UA fills the plane. As @AdamH notes, it’s my understanding (which is mostly conjecture- there’s also an FT thread somewhere) that the computer autofills windows and aisles from front to back without any attention to status! Obviously I’d prefer it if they stuffed all the freaking kettles + BE in the back but what can you do? Heck, I’d even take filling W/A from the back vs front.

    And I recently found out why E+ is always so full. Employees get free E+! I don’t have a problem with that on a moral level but it certainly crowds the “cabin.”

    There was an attempted solution to the free E+ problem (for BE pax, apparently giving away blue seats to RE wasn’t a priority) but I haven’t heard anything on that front so… https://liveandletsfly.boardingarea.com/2017/08/02/free-economy-plus-united-basic-economy/

    Perhaps they should employ the Ryanair model: mandatory middle seats for BE!!! https://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/news/statistics-middle-random-nature-ryanair-seats-allocate-policy/

  10. To be clear, this is a much different situation than what Matthew posted about on his blog. In that case, the non-status passenger got an exit row because it was the last seat on the plane.

    In this case, there were obviously regular economy seats left.

  11. @cddd Priority boarding is as good as having a checked bag, in that overhead bin space will be available, whereas it almost certainly won’t if you’re in group 5.

    I haven’t heard any stories of gate agents denying BE passengers in group 2 a second carryon. (I just did it myself, though I don’t know if being a UA Gold makes any difference.)

  12. Whoops, I meant to say “Prority boarding is as good as being allowed a second carryon bag…”

  13. I flew UA premium economy to Europe….a joke. Bigger seat, but same lousy meal and amenities. Not woth the effort.

    Recently, I flew to Germany on AA in premium economy and was really impressed. it was Better than British Airways. And BA is quite good in my opinion. Except for those smokey 20-something 747s.

  14. I haven’t heard any stories of gate agents denying BE passengers in group 2 a second carryon.

  15. I’m premier silver and paid basic fare. Now flying tokyo to SF at the very back of the plane. No economy plus seat given and when I wanted to get one through the united app I was asked to pay 177 usd. Economyplus seating, which should be given to premier frequent flyers didn’t work for me. My loyalty doesn’t mean much to united

  16. Premier gold here and waiting in my seat for DEN-AUS right now. I was accidentally booked on an E- ticket, but got pre-assigned a middle seat in regular economy before I checked in in the app. It showed up in my reservation as if I have selected this dreadful seat. The gate agent refused to my explicit request of changing to an aisle seat, even a regular economy one, but got both of my friends, without any status and also traveling E-, E+ seats. It seems united algorithm tried to prevent premier members from not having a seat when traveling E-, but people like me may end up with worse seats than standard E- travellers’ because of it. Although frequent travelers may usually do not travel E-, United really needs to work on how to “efficiently” assign seats for E- travelers; at least gate agents should be able to move a premier member when explicitly asked to do so and when seats are available!

  17. @Bryan Wow that is terrible! On the one hand, you’d hope UA would treat elites better. On the other, you get what you pay for (E+ is not a published benefit). So like many Americans, I guess you learned your lesson!

  18. Premier Silver here … for personal reasons, I take a 2-hour flight a couple times a month, usually book Basic Economy (the ticket is about 40% more for Economy). Small flight and 95% of the time I get E+ automatically. As stated above, I believe it has to do with how full the flight is. I pay for United Club access and ticket agents inside the club have upgraded me (E to E+), regardless of my Basic Economy ticket! One oddity, I was overseas trying to enter a Star Alliance lounge, but was rejected because I was Silver … I argued that I was a United Club member and I would have gotten in EXCEPT I didn’t have that worthless Untied Club card with me. Yeah, I experienced the one circumstance where you need the card, ugh … I would laugh, but my son was with me, so it wasn’t cool at all.

  19. I just flew SFO-EWR on basic economy yesterday and surprisingly got upgraded to economy plus at online check in. I don’t fly United as frequently so all I have is the United Explorer Card (for free bags, priority boarding) and no other status at all.

  20. Premier silver here. Another data point I’m 6/6 getting back of economy plus with basic economy with 1 other person with aisle + middle. With 3 total we got the whole row or aisle + aisle + middle. All from DEN to SLC, LAS, SEA.

    Considering I normally don’t get economy plus seats next to each other during check in when flight is nearly full, getting pre-assigned(maybe) during purchase is pretty good.

    Combine basic economy + Ritz 100 credit makes flying to places super cheap with 50-60 dollar RT tickets.

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