United Airlines hates family separation…unless their customers won’t pay to sit together.
Last June, United Airlines, along with other airlines, came out strongly against the White House decision to separate minor children from parents who are captured while crossing the border illegally. In fact, United CEO Oscar Munoz even laid down the gauntlet against the federal government:
[W]e have contacted federal officials to inform them that they should not transport immigrant children on United aircraft who have been separated from their parents.
Family Separation Onboard
But when it comes to onboard seating, United is far less worried about family separation. Brian Sumers of Skift recently sat down with United Airlines’ President Scott Kirby. The issue of United’s decision to charge for “regular seats” in economy class on the basis of their location in the cabin came up.
You’ll soon start charging extra fees for what you consider more desirable coach seats. They won’t have extra legroom or any other amenities. Why?
Kirby: Well, we’ve got Economy Plus today, which has more leg room. There’s also rows that don’t have more leg room but they’re at the front of the airplane. Other airlines do this too. And so, we’re now going to let people select those seats as well for a fee.
That makes business sense. But is it fair? These policies make it tough for families to sit next to each other without paying extra fees.
Kirby: Look, when you go to a concert, do you think you should pay the same price to sit in the nosebleed seats or to sit up front?
I don’t know why airlines are unique. Every other business that has something like that charges more for a better product. It’s a better product. You know it’s a better seat. I don’t know why airlines would be unique by offering lower prices for a lesser product. That’s what we do.
Every analogy falls apart at some point. My analogy to family separation of immigrants is imperfect and so is Kirby’s concert analogy. The point of a concert is that you are watching something in the front. On an airplane, there is no performance from the flight deck or front galley. Plus, the seats are identical so I fail to understand how this represents charging for a “better product”. What do you think of Kirby’s defense of charging more for these seats?
My commentary is meant to be tongue and cheek, although the I hope the satire isn’t lost. United’s new move makes sense from a logical perspective and is actually fair. But life isn’t fair and this move will create new headaches for gate agents and FAs dealing with irate passengers. It doesn’t matter if the passenger is 100% fault for not ensuring that seats were properly assigned: United’s front-line staff will have to deal with the mess.
On another note, the entire interview with Kirby is worth a read. Furthermore, I must admit that Kirby is growing on me. I regret the degradation of the domestic first class product under his watch, but Kirby’s route planning and overall performance has impressed me. I’m particularly impressed that he focused on operations and accelerated the Polaris seat and lounge rollout. Let’s give him credit where credit is due.