United: 'Subscriptions' offer a year's worth of fees

9:52 AM, Jun 5, 2013   |    comments
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United Airlines will sell subscriptions that allow passengers to pay for a year's worth of extra legroom or baggage fees up front instead of doling out the extra fees flight by flight.

United said Monday that it is the only U.S. airline offering the yearly plans that start at $349 to check a single bag on each flight, and $499 to book a seat in its premium coach section known as Economy Plus.

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"The Economy Plus and checked baggage subscriptions offer our customers more of the comfort and convenience they value year round," Scott Wilson, United's vice president of merchandising and e-commerce, said in a statement. "We are pleased that, as we launch these services, we are able to provide new options for customers to tailor their travel experiences."

Customers who pick the cheapest checked baggage subscription plan will not have to pay to check a bag when flying in the continental U.S. The cost goes up if you want to extend it to other regions, check two suitcases instead of one, or include other passengers on your reservation. For instance, it's $50 more to check two bags per flight, and another $100 if the subscription extends to travel throughout North America and Central America.

A "global" checked-luggage subscription costs $799 and includes two bags.

The price of United's Economy Plus annual plan also varies by region and the number of travelers.

A "subscriber" can pay $499 to be able to book an Economy Plus seat, when one is available, on any flight within the mainland United States for a year. For all of North and Central America -- including Hawaii and Alaska -- the fee goes up to $599. "Global" Economy Plus access, for flights going anywhere in the world, will cost $699.

United's Economy Plus seating is toward the front of the coach-cabin and features roughly four more inches of legroom.

United offered a similar subscription for Economy Plus access prior to its merger with Continental in 2010. And at a time when airlines earn billions charging for everything from early boarding to pillows, some industry watchers think the newly announced subscriptions are a good idea.

"I think it will be extremely successful," says Jay Sorensen of IdeaWorks, a consulting company specializing in airline revenue. "The first choice for these customers will be United because they've already invested."

Sorensen also believes that "other carriers will match this innovation," though it might take a while for them to have a booking system set up to deal with it.

George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog.com says the Economy Plus access plan could be a good deal for frequent fliers who usually seek out the extra legroom. But he noted that even with a subscription, grabbing those seats won't be a sure thing.

"United will still be selling (economy) plus seats individually to anyone, and offering upgrades to their top tier frequent fliers," Hobica says, "so there's no guarantee that seats will be available on a given flight. . . Some people may be disappointed to learn that all the (economy) plus seats on their flights are sold out in advance to other fliers."

Conversely, the annual plans could turn off high-status fliers who will have more competition for the premium coach seats. And they could dilute some of the perks offered to passengers who hold a co-branded United credit card, says travel industry analyst, Henry Harteveldt

"The move has risks," he says.

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