Why United Won’t Really Introduce Premium Economy On Domestic Flights

Filed Under: United

In January, United revealed internally that they’d be introducing premium economy on select international flights. The new cabin will be called Premium Plus, and will offer “more space, comfort and amenities.” United said that this product would be introduced later this year, though we haven’t heard anything more in the nearly two months since that initial announcement was made.

Interestingly United’s president, Scott Kirby, mentioned premium economy at an investor conference yesterday, though it wasn’t in the context of international flights. Rather, he revealed that United is considering adding premium economy on domestic flights, and that they “look forward to announcing that, if [they] can get a great product at some point.”

What did Kirby mean by this? Could United really be considering adding a premium economy cabin on domestic routes? No way.

The simple reason that a true premium economy product doesn’t work on domestic flights is because the international premium economy experience is virtually the same as the domestic first class experience. Take American, for example, which was the first US global airline to introduce premium economy. Their premium economy seat on international flights is the same as what they use for first class on domestic flights. The catering is similar as well.

With airlines shrinking the size of first class cabins, and with the price difference between first class and economy shrinking as well, the market for something like this seems limited.

In my opinion there’s no way United would add wider seats as part of a premium economy experience on domestic flights.

What could Kirby have meant, then? My guess is that by “premium economy” on domestic flights he’s referring to better branding their current Economy Plus offering. United was the first global US carrier to offer an extra legroom economy section. Both American and Delta have matched that in the meantime, with Main Cabin Extra and Comfort+, respectively.

But United has been overtaken by both of them. All three airlines offer an extra legroom economy section, though:

My guess is that any “premium economy” product that United would introduce would come in the form of adding services to their existing Economy Plus section and rebranding it. Maybe they’ll add free alcoholic drinks, maybe they’ll add free snacks, and maybe they’ll add something beyond that (pillows, blankets, meals, etc.). Who knows.

But I just don’t see United introducing a more spacious premium product on domestic flights. They have enough trouble reconfiguring international planes, so I can’t imagine they’d start the ambitious project of reconfiguring domestic planes with a new type of seat as well.

Does anyone have a different take on this, and think United could introduce a more spacious premium economy product on domestic flights?

(Tip of the hat to TravelinWilly)

  1. Perhaps they will put it on the few planes are doing PS and high-density domestic flights that have flat beds on them.

  2. If they did rebrand extra legroom economy as “premium economy” this would beat out AA that makes premium economy passengers pay more for main cabin extra.

  3. Maybe domestic First/Business class nomenclature will go away and United will be the first to re-brand the front cabin as Premium Economy?

    Thereby, reducing the service standards even further in that section of the plane?

    Probably won’t happen but who knows.

  4. Don’t really need a premium economy on most domestic flights. As you point out, domestic first class fares aren’t terribly higher than economy, and comes with noticeably better service. In fact, ironically, when I was travelling in the US last year, thanks to hurricane Harvey, I had to rebook my travels, flying first class was **cheaper** for me than coach, when I added the fees for checked baggage. Coach came out around $270 (with bag fees), first $234, bags included (and lounge access and other perks).

    I suppose for transcon or from HI/AK to continental USA, there may be a market for premium Y.

  5. One way that they could make E+ better is to make DirecTV free for those passengers on sCO 737s.

  6. Of course they will. On the few routes that the equipped international aircraft operate domestic routings. There they will (try to) sell these seats for a premium, but will offer the same service as economy class.

  7. I second @Emirates4Ever on this one.

    It certainly isn’t off base on transcons such as EWR-SFO, where you then would have the choice of an internationally configured flat-bed plane (domestic first), premium economy, economy plus and (basic) economy, giving the customer yet more or less of everything.

    That way they’ll make use of the internationally configured plane (domestically) without giving those “perks” away for free (okay, maybe for status pax by opup, etc.)

  8. Maybe they’ll replace FC on some flights and replace it by an Euro-business class like premium Economy (with blocked middle seat)?

  9. It’s super easy to take the current Economy Plus and just rebrand it as Premium Economy and sell it that way. That would not require any hard product changes which are always a challenge for United anyhow.

  10. you’ve also conveniently neglected to mention how tiny and worthless the Comfort+ and MCE sections are on DL and AA planes while for UA it’s easily 30-40% of the Econ cabin.

    I’ll enjoy my window and aisle seats while they can enjoy all the snacks and perks in their middle seat.

  11. Could they maybe also try a Euro first class for premium econ, blocking a middle seat and then offering an enhanced soft product similar to Delta’s soft product? Or would that just make too much sense for an airline like United? Hard to see an airline giving up a revenue seat but if the premium yield is there, why not?

  12. Maybe they’ll be rebranding their 8-across business product while they wait for the Polaris retrofit

  13. Let’s see.. for their Polaris rollout how many planes have been upgraded? 20%? And it’s been.. 2 years so far?

    Not holding my breath for any upgrades to their domestic cabins. I’m sure they’ll just rebrand Economy Plus instead.

  14. Maybe they will add them only on those long domestic flights,like East Coast to Hawaii or Western Canada and vie versa. Maybe by “domestic” it’s meant transcontinental – like to South America (they’re considered domestic too,since mostly same rules,like baggage allowance,fees,etc are exactly same as US-domestic))

  15. The obvious answer is a big, resounding “NO!” Anything which might make flying with them more pleasurable is definitely NOT an option.

    United’s management seems intent on making life for their customers and employees as miserable as possible.

  16. I agree with ORD Flyer. I think they might be considering rebranding domestic first as Premium Economy – and lowering service standards.

  17. UA might be copying DL and making E+ its own booking class. UA will then spin it as an enhancement, but we will all know better.

  18. While this may be me being obtuse, there’s a fairly simple reason why United would be hesitant to roll out premium economy on its domestic routes and stems from the simple fact that they don’t operate these routes. Domestic first/business class, apart from Transcon routes, is pretty basic. While the routes United operates itself may warrant 3 classes of service, it’s pretty unlikely they are going to be able to make that value proposition to their partner airlines.

  19. I’d expect them to sell Premium Plus when flying planes with international configuration on domestic routes, especially connecting flights, for pure simplicity.
    If you purchase for example Premium Plus from SFO via Newark to Europe, same plane used, you’d have the same seat and service for both legs.
    Probably better than putting you into an Economy Minus seat between SFO and Newark. And it would be confusing to call it “First Class’ when you have Polaris Business onboard as well…
    As far as I’m concerned, they should get rid of Domestic First and just call it Premium Plus on all flights – there is nothing “First Class” about it anyway…

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