United’s Chief Commercial Officer Throws Shade at American: Extra Legroom Seats are Needed for Elites

Andrew Nocella, United’s executive vice president and chief commercial officer – who came to United with Scott Kirby and who was responsible for many of the negative changes at American Airlines once legacy US Airways management took over – offered some important observations about their customers at the airline’s media day.

  • Business travelers are leisure travelers. He says that “business customers don’t just fly for business” they also go on vacation. He doesn’t take it to its logical conclusion, though, about extending great treatment to top tier elites who will have to spend $18,000 a year minimum for 1K status (which is more than competitors) and how those customers are treated with their families on the cheapest (basic economy) fares.

  • Premium passengers usually sit in back. International business class flyers are usually flying for work. Businesses often have travel policies that will pay for the highest cost seats on trips over a certain number of hours – 6, 13, etc. – and that means most passengers flying domestically for work most of the time are in back. Nocella notes “a majority of the time [business class passengers] aren’t sitting in the front cabin.”

He notes that United has more extra legroom seats than competitors. They’re delivering Economy Plus to Gold elites 80% of the time.

Nocella throws shade at American Airlines over densification, even though he’d have been involved in these discussions when he was at American, suggesting that United could add seats to their 737s but they need extra legroom seats for customers.

They’re also adding first class seats because they need more both to sell and for upgrades.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. So this is about Nocella learning that retrofitting the US airways model at American would be bad business for United? If so, glad to see everyone can grow.

  2. Only 80% of Golds get an “upgrade” to E+? Holy crap that’s bad! As a Silver I probably get blue seats 95% of the time. And it isn’t a close in booking issue since I’m only eligible on DoD. I do find it interesting that they track where elites are sitting. I wonder how many other hidden metrics they have.

  3. “that means most passengers flying domestically for work most of the time are in back”

    Who tf would sign up for a job like this….

  4. People in glass houses. . . . UA shouldn’t comment about AA, since they all graduated from the same college. Two years since they left, the play book might be changing at AA. . .

  5. Race to the bottom. I was AA EP for 15 years, dumped AA, and then became a free agent between UA and SWA. UA went to variable awards, killing the value proposition. As stated in the article, ‘business fliers are leisure fliers’, and I get SIGNIFICANTLY more value from my SWA points domestically that I ever could from UA in this new paradigm. I also use non-airline credit cards for spend, which helps me remain a free agent. Loving my companion pass, free wifi, etc, etc.

  6. UA Golds get E+ only 80% of the time? That seems incredibly bad unless that 20% is nearly all same day tickets.

  7. Perhaps I’m being cynical, but it looks to me like the graphic says “80% of MileagePlus Golds receive an E+ upgrade,” which is quite different from “MileagePlus Golds receive an upgrade 80% of the time.” A single upgrade would satisfy the first criterion, and if that’s really what they mean, that’s appalling.

  8. @AGB JOMG! You’re right. Although I doubt they mean that. I was also thinking maybe the 20% were CPUs to First! Haha.

  9. E+ is considered an “upgrade” these days? So glad I stopped traveling for work a few years ago.

  10. Yes E+ is an “upgrade” in the sense that it is free and significantly more comfortable (almost as much legroom as F though width is still horrible). F upgrades are pretty much gone for all but GS customers at UA hub-to-hub flights and other popular business routes. As a 1K I pretty much gave up on F upgrades from SFO. IMO E+ makes a huge difference on midcon and transcon flights and is a big selling point for UA compared to DL which will not even allocate E+ seats to their Gold members at time of booking.

    As for the 80% factor I think that’s impressive – many of us end up switching flights within 24 hours of booking (i.e. SDC to an earlier or later flight) at which point all of the good E+ seats are gone. Personally I will take an E- aisle seat over an E+ window seat on a transcon. There are also flights where E+ simply fills up months in advance (i.e. peak holiday travel). So 80% basically means all Gold get upgrades to E+ except for those booking late in the cycle.

  11. As @Bort said, wait. What? Now you’ve semi-found religion?
    Seeing what these overpaid blowhards pull for their compensation, yet we see what’s happening on the ground, with the hard and the soft product, I wouldn’t trust Nocella any more than anyone should trust the rest of the lot of ’em!
    Interesting story, though…

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