Earlier today United Airlines announced new and improved transcontinental premium service. But one statement in the press release caught my attention, signaling what may be even bigger news.
Although United has toyed with the possibility of a true premium economy product for years, it has resisted. American and Delta have already unveiled plans for their own premium economy product, a truly separate cabin. For now, United’s Economy Plus is simply a standard economy class seat with up to five inches of additional legroom.
Today’s announcement marks the first true distinguishing point between United Economy and Economy Plus. Starting on 01 July 2017, passengers seated in Economy Plus will receive hot meals on premium transcon routes (BOS/EWR-SFO, EWR-LAX).
Mark Krolick, United’s vice president of marketing, hints that the change is simply the “first step”–
Flying between Boston or the New York area and the west coast can be akin to flying from the east coast to Europe, and we want to provide a satisfying and unparalleled meal in our Economy cabin. This enhancement to Economy Plus is our first step toward a premium Economy offering for our customers.
It is an interesting statement because flights are generally not priced or serviced based upon distance, but upon market. The more competitive transatlantic market necessitates a higher level of onboard service, such as the provision of meals.
While I do not dispute that the premium transcon market has grown increasingly competitive, if flight time matters than Untied should offer complimentary meals on its 11hr daily Newark to Honolulu flight. It does not: only buy-on-board meals are available.
Krolick uses the term “premium Economy”, a term that United has never used to describe Economy Plus. If hot meals are simply the “first step” we may well see a greater announcement in the months to come.
Look to Delta for Upgrade Concerns?
Talk to travelers, particularly United elites, and worry spreads across their faces over today’s news. Delta’s Comfort Plus (premium economy) is already available on domestic transcon routes. Elites are eligible to upgrade on the following basis: Diamonds + Platinums at time of booking, 72 hours before for Gold, 24 hours before for Silver Medallion members. These are not automatic upgrades, but must be requested. Only one guest is eligible. Upgrades to first class are still offered on a space available basis as well, even for Silver members.
Currently, 1K members can bring up to 9 family members from economy to Economy Plus at no cost. That’s a bit generous, but how about a family of three or four? If a true “premium economy” cabin suddenly means families will have to pay up or be separated, pricing will have to be carefully (and reasonably) calibrated or else I can guarantee an elite revolt.
No Official Word Yet, but a Clue
In internal communication to FAs, United included the following Q&A:
In the economy cabin, why are we providing a complimentary meal only to customers in Economy Plus?
Customers seated in Economy Plus tend to be some of our most loyal customers. Many are Premier members and others paid extra to buy into this section. By offering a differentiated and improved dining service, we are adding more value to Economy Plus and ensuring that our investments continue to reward loyalty.
That’s a safe answer and one that suggests that there are no immediate plans to create a truly operate product.
But time will tell.
Tomorrow, I will talk about FA anxiety over the new service changes. I’ve been shocked at the pushback I’ve been reading amongst United FAs over today’s changes.
For now, understand that Economy Plus will remain simply economy + extra legroom. But complimentary meals and alcohol at least indicate that United is considering a new approach to premium economy.