United to start charging for its best coach seats (Extra legroom not included)

Key Points
  • United Airlines will start charging for 'preferred' seats in the coach cabin on Dec. 14.
  • American and Delta already charge coach passengers fees for these sections of the plane.
  • The preferred seats offer standard legroom.
United Express airplane at the Cleveland Hopkins Airport
Leslie Josephs | CNBC

Snagging a great airfare doesn't mean you'll have a great seat on your flight.

Starting this Friday, coach passengers on United Airlines who want to avoid the back of the plane may have to pay up for it. The airline will charge a fee for so-called preferred seats on flights throughout its network. These seats don't come with extra legroom or other perks. They're standard economy seats that will be behind the Economy Plus rows, which come with more space.

United's rivals American Airlines and Delta Air Lines already have a surcharge in place for such seats. The trend is part of airline's efforts to segment their coach-class cabins, an effort to get travelers to pay up for perks that used to be included in airfare. Airlines already offer travelers add-ons such as early boarding, lounge access and more legroom.

United did not say how much more travelers would have to pay for seats in these preferred locations. On competitors Delta and American, the prices vary by aircraft, route and demand. For example, a preferred seat on a Delta flight from New York to Los Angeles in early January was $80. On an American flight from New York to Paris at that time, the price of a preferred location seat ranged from $62 to $81. Prices are for each leg of the itinerary.

Seating is a key part of airlines' bare-bones basic economy product, which United and American rolled out last year, following Delta. In exchange for what is usually the lowest fare, basic economy passengers can't pick their seats ahead of time or make changes to their tickets. They also board last.

On Tuesday, United is relaunching its no-frills basic economy tickets for certain trans-Atlantic routes it offered over the summer. Unlike its domestic basic economy class, passengers on such tickets on these flights can bring a full-size carry-on bag that fits in the overhead bin but there will be a charge for a first checked bag.

These passengers can pay to pick a seat ahead of time, but the Economy Plus seats that have more legroom will not be available, even for purchase, a spokeswoman said.

Also starting Tuesday, United will start allowing travelers to apply their basic economy tickets toward elite status in the airline's MileagePlus frequent flyer program.

United's basic economy passengers will earn 50 percent of the qualifying miles and half of a qualifying segment for each flight, while the price of the ticket will be fully applied. Passengers have to earn 25,000 miles or have flown on 30 qualifying flights, along with a spend of $3,000, to reach the lowest Premier elite status, Silver, according to United's website.

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