Terrible: United’s New Basic Economy Fares Won’t Allow Carry-On Bags Or Elite Mileage Accrual

Among US carriers, Delta was the first to introduce “basic economy” fares. This is an attempt to compete with ultra-low cost carriers like Spirit and Allegiant… in theory.

Spirit-Airlines

The intent is that the cheapest fares in some markets will come with even fewer benefits, like not being eligible for any sort of ticket changes (even for a fee), not allowing advance seat assignments, not allowing free upgrades, etc. The logic is that this will allow them to compete with low cost carriers on price, when they might not otherwise be able to.

Delta-Basic-Economy-1

While “basic economy” fares were initially rolled out in select markets where low cost carriers were dominant, they’ve since spread to many more routes.

American and United are rolling out basic economy in 2017

Both American and United will be rolling out their basic economy products in 2017. As I wrote about a few weeks ago, American is on track to roll out basic economy fares in January 2017. Unfortunately what this means in practice is that we’ll be paying more for the same tickets come January. Today we’ve found out that United will begin selling basic economy in January 2017, starting for flights in the second quarter of 2017.

In most cases airlines aren’t actually rolling out basic economy fares that are cheaper than the current cheapest fares, but rather the current cheapest fares just become basic economy fares, and if you want the added services, you better be willing to pay.

What makes United basic economy the worst

Up until now, booking a basic economy fare on Delta has meant no free ticket changes, no advance seat assignments, no upgrades, etc.

United is taking it a step further with their basic economy fares. They won’t allow seat assignments prior to check-in, ticket changes, upgrades, or Economy Plus seating. Beyond that, if booking a basic economy fare:

  • You won’t receive any elite qualifying credit, meaning no elite qualifying miles, elite qualifying segments, or elite qualifying dollars
  • You won’t be allowed to bring on a full sized carry-on, but rather will be limited to a personal item (there’s an exception for elite members, Star Alliance Gold members, and those with United’s co-branded credit card)

So they’re penalizing all types of customers greatly with these changes — elite members won’t get any sort of elite credit, and non-elite members won’t be allowed a full sized carry-on.

united-lounge-london-heathrow-62

How United will enforce the carry-on ban

Apparently United basic economy customers will be put in boarding group 5, and gate agents will be trained that those passengers aren’t entitled to a free full sized carry-on. In the event that they do have a carry-on, they’ll be forced to pay a fee for checking it, unlike other passengers, who can gate check bags for free.

Wow.

With the emphasis airlines place on on-time departures, you really have to wonder what this will look like in practice. Usually gate agents are scrambling to close the door on-time, so where are they going to get the time to argue with customers (which will inevitably happen) and process payments for checked bags?

Bottom line

Oh man, United really is taking basic economy to a new low with the way they’re introducing it. They’re penalizing both elite and non-elite customers in a worse way than Delta is doing for basic economy, and that American is planning on doing for basic economy.

But given the direction the industry is headed, perhaps we can count on Delta and American matching soon.

What do you make of United’s basic economy not allowing elite mileage accrual or carry-on bags?

(Tip of the hat to View from the Wing)

Comments

  1. I feel like this is going to send everyone running to Southwest. (As an AA fangirl who recently got the companion pass.)

  2. All I can say about the full size carry on bag’s, BRAVO!! Thank you to United even if I don’t fly your airline. Probably my biggest pet peeve, people bringing full size bags as carry ons. About time one of the big 3 enacted something to put a check on this.

  3. Not sure why this is surprising… flying ORD-LAX is cheaper now than it’s ever been, so I am not sure why expect UA, DL, and AA to offer the same benefits as before for 1/3 the price.

  4. People expect this on Spirit but on a legacy carrier like United, this is going to cause a ton of confusion at the gate.

    The average person who flies once a year maybe not realize they are buying this type of fare (totally overlooking the fine print) and get a big surprise at the gate.

  5. Less overstuffed bags that take forever to cram in the overheads after banging your knees as they’re schlepped down the aisle but a clueless kettle?

    Sounds like a fabulous idea!

  6. From the point of view of the business flyer, these changes are great. Too many stuffed overhead bins or bags that simply don’t fit.

  7. This idea is horrible for some business travelers who are required to purchase the lowest fare. I am hoping that my routes will generally not offer them. I fear that this would not be the case.

  8. @tom up until recently united just scraped the delta policy and did find and replace, so they can’t have been the bar setter for long. If they are actually just making N/G/K (or some of those) basic fares that is painful, but I will withhold judgement until there is actually data for a statistical analysis of the fares.

  9. Look at it this way. People in the last boarding group need to check their bags anyway because the bins are almost always full. This gate check process slows down boarding. By charging these people for carry-ons, they will just be given the incentive to check a bag at check-in rather than at the gate. By capturing these bags at check in, security will be faster and boarding will be faster. I think it is not a terrible decision. Consumers aren’t dumb. They can compare fares and pick what works best for them.

  10. Completely agree with Benjamin J, this is just going to add another layer of confusion for infrequent travelers *and* gate agents who’ll now have to play cashier for those pax that don’t know what they’re doing. There’s no way this can save time; this is purely a money grab being rebranded as an efficiency process.

    I always thought the constant use of “race to the bottom” was cliched, but it’s becoming more and more fitting for multiple airlines. Pretty soon it doesn’t seem like there will be any non-LCCs for domestic travel, save maybe AS.

  11. Southwest has gradually become my airline of choice. Never thought I’d ever be saying that. In. A. Million. Years.

  12. I’m glad UA has decided this way.
    I’m really sick of people bringing multiple oversized carrion bags and stuffing the overhead bins with them.

  13. race for the bottom is what the airlines are doing by ramming it down your throat & saying it’s enhancement customers want.

    there was a travel jacket ad that delta refuses to run on their inflight magazine. the ad says you can reduce bag checking fee by store a lot of stuff in the 20+ pockets and thus reduce or eliminate additional bags. delta does not want this to happen. So, get a jacket like that & use a small carry-on might help.

  14. The only way I see this working is if United can somehow interact with every customer before they board as to avoid the inevitable argument. Of course the whole point of electronic check in is to speed the process up an avoid having to wait in line to check in. There is potential and I stress potential for some benefits like have been described above but I just see a lot of contradictions and potentials for problems. Really if someone shows up at boarding with a bag what is United going to go? Hold a plane full of passengers? Let him board with the bag? Take the bag? Refuse them to get on?

  15. FANTASTIC NEWS. Carry-on bags are the single leading issue with delayed boarding, stressed out passengers, stressed out flight attendants, stressed out gate agents, stressed out TSA…in other words, the terrible experience that getting on a U.S. airplane has become. If people’s voyages start relaxed, the whole experience becomes far better and air rage is reduced.

    Whoever came up with the idea of charging for bags stored in the hold while giving out scarce overhead space for free should be induced in the museum of worst airline decision making ever (was that Arpey at American?)

  16. Since most gate agents are obsessed with having the plane loaded and doors closed way before necessary now, with the “on time performance pushback”–(only then sit 1 foot from the gate for 20 mins not moving) –being the ultimate goal, I don’t see it effecting the schedules at all. So much extra time is built in anyways.
    This will encourage those who don’t have a UA credit card to get one now, just for the free bag & early boarding, which we DON’T need…since it’s hardly special when half the plane is already lined up for “priority” boarding.
    I’ll be sticking with my United MileagePlus Club Card which at least gets me ahead of that overstuffed group. Thank God I don’t have to fly in this new category though.

  17. @Adam
    > This idea is horrible for some business travelers who are required to purchase the lowest fare.

    The idea of a company requiring its employees to purchase the “lowest fare” is horrible. It should always require employees to purchase the best value for getting the job done.

    You should talk to your employer or change companies.

  18. I wonder if discount economy will become an award ticket option? In any event, I would never buy discount economy given these restrictions. The carryon bag situation has been out of control for a while now. I recall back before they started charging for checked bags, I would be amazed at just how many huge bags people had while waiting to check in. But you know, there was rarely a problem in the cabin with overhead space back then.

    I’m sure United will sell these tickets and the biggest complaints will be from people who buy them.

  19. ‘MileagePlus Premier members and certain credit card members will retain boarding priority and be permitted an overhead carry-on bag’

    So which credit card members are keeping this? They pitch the ‘Explorer Card’ as having priority boarding, will that stay?

  20. So standard economy fares likely going up. What’s that mean for business/first? If they stay the same, lower margin between E and J/F.

  21. @Amy

    It’s usually a contractual requirement for companies that do consulting/contract work for others. When we agree to reimburse consultants’ expenses, we only do so at the lowest economy fare possible. We do it to control our costs.

  22. A GS member for multiple years (my father) said it best though ‘no EQM mileage = no incentive to fly with them.’ Was a UA loyalist since I started flying for work, but looks like I’ll be making a switch, unless they are adding a new fare class (i.e actually lower prices for Basic Economy) but I am not hopeful on this. Getting less for more seems to be the new model.

  23. I’m actually OK with this. Many low cost European carriers do the exact same thing. There will always be cost conscious travellers looking for the cheapest fares and theses fares will appeal to them. I assume one would still get basic MP credit.

    I think United is finally realizing that a frequent flier program is best served when it rewards it’s FREQUENT fliers..many who pay higher fares. If this thins out the ranks of crybabies I’m all for it. I suppose they would rather customers stay with United than go to a Spirit or similar competitor. The UA MP program is filed with too many member whonglyna little and think they are entitled to more.

  24. What I don’t understand is why do you think it will create confusion – if United will properly mark that the basic fare do not have any baggage included (fare information, pop-up window, additional confirmation, ticket etc) it should not confuse anyone. It is like with Ryanair and check-in before arriving to the airport – it is really hard to miss.

  25. As someone who pays for travel (mostly in business class), these changes are great!

    I am mostly AA but can use United too.

  26. Why don’t airline just charge people by how much weight and dimension the bring onboard (including themselves). This is the farest way. I say everyone is allow 150 lb and 75 cube feet of onboard weight/space. Everything extra is extra $$$

  27. OK first of all I have to say all you people that are cheering on United for this “” enhancement” really don’t know what you’re talking about.
    yes carry-on bags delay flights but this was a choice the airlines chose to make when profits were down this was a way for them to up their profits by charging for checked bags
    now that profits are up you don’t see them taking away the checked bag fee in order to speed up the boarding process
    they choose to keep it in place and have a slower boarding time
    The good news is that most of the new were planes the 737 900s 787’s triple sevens they all have a larger overhead bins that can accommodate six bags for so this is something that will eventually become better as the older aircraft or replaced
    But this is definitely not going to speed up the boarding process putting them in group 5 boarding and then arguing with everyone to try to get them to pay I can tell you just buy shopping in the grocery store when it comes time to pay women dig through their purses for 15 minutes at the register and hold up the whole line and I expect this to be happening when they charge for checked bags as well
    The occasional once a year traveler isn’t going to understand that the basic economy fares do not include even a carry-on bag and it will create a lot of confusion and the delay for a lot of the flights
    They’ll eventually will be two types of gate agents one that could care less and just lets everybody on board and ones that police like a pitbull
    But it’s definitely not going to speed up the boarding process
    people expect this type of thing when they buy the cheapest ticket on Spirit but not on the legacy carrier I think United totally is going in the wrong direction and they supposedly are aiming for better customer service with this new CEO but I think they’re going to take a dive back to the bottom again just to try to get a little put more profit in their pockets

  28. United obviously doesn’t give a rat’s rectum about their front-line employees, as they, not the suits at HQ, will be the ones who will be taking the brunt of this. The people who pick the cheapest fare they can find are also the ones who complain (piss and moan) the loudest, and they will be pissing and moaning a ton with this policy.

    …and I feel really bad for the corporate travelers whose travel policies will force them to take this crap. There are a lot of companies which require employees or vendors to use the lowest fare possible, sometimes requiring proof that it was indeed the lowest fare. Unfortunately these policies don’t factor in ancillary costs, such as extra fees and downtime waiting for flights…or in the case of United, late/cancelled flights. Fortunately for my office, I’m the one usually making travel plans for everyone so I do factor in all of that. Sometimes it’s cheaper to book F/J than Y.

    It’s been over a decade since I last flew on United and given that this is how they treat their employees and customers, it’ll easily be another decade before I or anyone from my office travel on United.

  29. I am fine with this, if people want the same price as spirit and frontier they should get the same service. I also assume it will be like Delta with numerous warnings of what you are getting when buying the ticket.

    I wonder if they will now be putting aisle seats traveling alone into Group 4 (which is usually the smallest group), when they aren’t on a basic economy ticket.

    Regarding checking of bags my guess is that agents will proactively monitor the group 5 lane and the T&Cs of UA will state they will use the same credit card you purchased your ticket with and just automatically charge it so you won’t have to reswipe it at the gate.

  30. I am of the opinion that the consumer has brought this upon himself. People have become so price sensitive around airfares (despite their not keeping up with inflation) that it was only a matter of time. Most consumer products are of a higher quality the more you pay for them (hotel rooms, cruise cabins, restaurant meals, etc.) but for some reason people expect full-service airlines to provide nearly equal services for the same price as low-cost carriers.

    As a frequent flyer I applaud this decision. Yes, I will be disappointed not to get full mileage benefits at the lowest fares and can already foresee the aggravation of the uninformed travelers (despite United’s insistence it’ll make these restrictions very clear when purchasing, we all know how unobservant people are), but people have got to learn that you get what you pay for.

    One more thing I am grateful for in this that I haven’t noticed mentioned here is that these fares will prominently advertise that in parties of two or more there is no guarantee of adjacent seats. I have often been asked to give up my pre-reserved seat for people wanting to sit together who I could tell were on discount fares and this really rankles me. It won’t eliminate cheapskates from thinking they’re entitled to sit with whoever they’re traveling with, but if it’s that important to them they can opt to pay more.

  31. Makes me wonder if there will be a separate Group 6 in the future for this especially for light flights where only half the plane is full. You can’t penalize Group 5 flyers (aisles) who are flying on non basic economy fares.

  32. Everyone thinks United is going to lower fares by offering this (like the European airlines etc.) no, this was the same fare they were offering before, just now they are giving you less for it.

    Whatever, all these changes have just caused me to travel less, hasn’t gotten me to pay more money. I’ve gone from spending 15,000 a year down to maybe 4,000 planned next year.. (and for those wondering, it will be the same % of spend per miles flown, so the airlines will not be making more on me for less flying, I’ll be flying less and paying less).

    God forbid the expectation of another recession during the next administration happens, these big 3 are screwed as they have already destroyed much of their loyalty base

  33. While United is at it, perhaps (to increase profits) they could save money by seating Basic Economy passengers in a part of the plane that doesn’t have life jackets or oxygen masks. They can also give a mandatory sedative or sleeping pill so that group 5 passengers won’t need food or have to get up to use restrooms.

  34. M’eh, people can pay for what they want. It’s still pretty incredible that one can fly from LA to NYC and back for <$300.

    The downside, of course, will be that UA won't be able to enforce the baggage rules, and the same fools who feel entitled to take up most of the overhead bin with their guitars or what not will continue to do so. Also expect a bunch of growsing from parents too cheap to buy non-basic fares who have their kids sitting away from them (actually, as a parent I'd pay extra for that, but unsure people who pay more for seats want to end up with a 7 year old they don't know beside them).

    It's a race to the bottom, but that's what people want so that's what they get.

  35. btguy brings up a good point about people being sat away from their children et. al. On my flight last week a family of 3 (mother, father, lap-child) were each sitting in center seats in Economy Plus. The father announced to everyone within ear shot “will one of you guys switch so we are not separated.” I was not in the row they were looking at so luckily did not have to make this decision, but one man actually moved into a center seat. I will not be happy if this starts to become the norm!

  36. 1.) An excuse to charge the same and offer less for the “lowest fares”. 2.) Business travelers who have to adhere to the “lowest airfare offered” policy are SCREWED!! No elite status miles are accrued and you can’t bring on a carry-on on board. I’ve achieved lifetime Premier Gold/Star Alliance Gold status earned by over a million butt-in-seat miles, so I’m screwed less, I guess. I’ve always compared United fares to Southwest’s – and have paid more because of Economy Plus and the opportunity for upgrades. Those days appear to be gone! Sad! #flyingbus #wearejustcattle

  37. No mileage credit for lowest fares already exists for airlines in Asia like Cathay, JAL etc. Or half credit on some. Flights get delayed by people trying to jam full-sized suitcases into the overhead bin and then they get taken off to check, creating delays. Perhaps the boarding pass will be marked no bags allowed and people will be stopped at security and told to check it.

  38. So here is what i expect to happen as they say the Computer will assign seats prior to boarding.

    UA’s IT Department (laughing should start already) will build an algorithm that will automatically assign these basic economy fares. If E- is Full, I suspect UA will auto-upgrade passengers from E- to E+, god forbid 2 ppl are traveling together in E- on separate PNRs because they will get split up. After enough E- seats are opened up then the computer will assign E- seats to Basic economy fares, probably still by status with Aisles and Windows going to any Elites and then middles.

    I also suspect UA may consider shrinking E+ to just a few rows depending on how often these Basic fares are sold and they will be monitoring the number of these sold.

  39. No issue with this. If you don’t want the extras, you don’t pay for them – if you want benefits, you do. Why the outrage?

  40. One more plane I will refuse to fly…..Airlines need to provide some type of service in economy seats….This is going way to far. The profits are up….give back a little to the people who fly….Check the dam bags…free or a reasonable charge…like…hardly anything……and get them to the pick up on time…They used to do it…They still could….Many people can not go away and just take nothing. I travel light, but not that light…United? Thanks, I will go back to Alaska…..or American….or ???????

  41. As a silver with an Exlorer Plus card, when I fly eco and wait to see if I get upgraded (forget 1st) to eco+, the only seats left are center, so forget that too. I’ll unwind my loyalty to United and check out other carriers instead.

  42. Shame, my loyalty to Star Alliance has made it so that I’m willing to spend a little more or add an extra stop to fly on United but if the basic economy fares aren’t actually any cheaper this may be the end of that. Unfortunately, UA is the only airline that serves my airport (GUC) year-round. I may have to start making the drive to Denver, Colorado Springs, or Grand Junction now.

  43. As a UA 1M miler based outside the USA, it was the Explorer card that destroyed much of the value of my Gold status as half the pax for every UA domestic flight are now lined up in Group 2. My loyalty reward can be purchased for $95! … If that is all my loyalty is worth, then I may as well fly with better airlines at lower cost. … That has lost UA three long haul return business class fare buys this year so far (and despite that I will go Platinum this month).

    As well as the infrequent domestic traveler issues, this no frills fare class will find its way onto lower priced international itineraries with domestic connections, adding yet more confused and annoyed *A pax to the gate mix, so there is no doubt in my mind that it is a recipe for gate chaos and flight delays. I was hoping that Polaris was a sign that Munoz was taking UA in a new direction, but this news sadly says the domestic space remains on a downward spiral.

  44. Why terrible? If the price that the are going to offer is lower to compite with ultra low cost, is just an option for that market people that use united today in economy, wont see real change a if the use the actual care, but if thea want to save more the y are going to let go some benefits.

  45. One question do you think they will apply this retroactively to an economy booking that is already set for next January, or is it only for new flights booked in 2017 (for United)?

  46. @Vicent: There’s a good chance the price is NOT going to be lower. Just the level of “service” provided, which I use the term loosely when talking about United. The price of regular Y will go up.

  47. “In most cases airlines aren’t actually rolling out basic economy fares that are cheaper than the current cheapest fares, but rather the current cheapest fares just become basic economy fares”

    Right on, this point needs to be emphasized over and over. The media seem to be saying lower ticket prices are coming…… they’re not

    Regarding carry-ons, they don’t enforce current rules so what makes anyone thinks that gate agents are going to suddenly become more aggressive????

  48. Wouldn’t it have been less controversial by just publishing a fare that included one or two checked bags again?

    Since I have Platinum for life, I could care less on the status miles but I find them continually dropping the way to earn miles for award travel. The award tickets are going the way everything else in our world is going: he/she with the biggest credit lines gets the perks.

  49. For those of you who abhor carryons, you are missing the point for those of us who have medical equipment that cannot be placed in checked bags for fear of losing. I have to wear night splints or I cannot walk the next day(s) due to the intense pain. These things are as big as ski boots and take up my entire carryon. I’ll tell you what pisses me off. Those who have bags, coats, etc. that could comfortably go under the seat in front and people put them in the overheads. Now that is inconsiderate.

  50. “and gate agents will be trained that those passengers aren’t entitled to a free full sized carry-on. In the event that they do have a carry-on, they’ll be forced to pay a fee for checking it, unlike other passengers, who can gate check bags for free”……
    Its about time though that gate agents start to enforce policy, unless your “status” on an airline/elite member and get advanced boarding, the amount of baggage passengers bring on board is ridiculous. Thus slowing down the boarding process and causing general chaos in the cabin.
    But lets be honest here, who is at fault in creating this problem in the first place, clearly the AIRLINES itself. In nickle and diming travelers to death.

  51. I’ve read a lot of comments here wondering why people are upset at these policies, saying that “if you want more pay more.” The problem is that I (as a business traveler working for one of those ‘lowest fare only’ companies) will have no choice to pay more. It sounds to me, and I could be wrong here, that I cannot even PAY MORE out of my own pocket to upgrade my ticket after my company has purchased the lowest far, so I can be comfortable. I honestly don’t care about the carry-on. I have a bag that fits under the smallest of under-seat storage, and I can check a bag if needed. What I care about is wanting to be able to sit somewhere other than the center seat in the last row of the plane. Many reasons for this; 1) my connections are often an hour or less and I really don’t want to miss (again, not my choice); 2) center seat passengers are often sitting between two humongous people (not necessarily overweight, muscular is just as humongous), who insist upon both using both of their armrests, leaving me to sit with my shoulders slumped and arms crossed (or I suppose I could get in a fight over it, because that usually turns out well for people); 3) by the time I’m finished with a 3 hour flight every muscle in my body is screaming at me and the E+ seats help with this. Am I just whining? Maybe. Am I willing to spend money out of my own pocket to avoid this situation? Absolutely! Will I be allowed to do so after my company books the Basic Economy Fare? Sounds like I won’t. That is the problem.

  52. Not being able to choose my seat assignment is enough to make me look elsewhere. I thought paying $100 a year for their credit card would at least allow me to choose my seat?? Never again. I didn’t even realize that what I was buying until after I purchased the ticket. Yes, a new low….what’s next???

  53. Rather than being the leader they could be, United has chosen to follow Delta into the ditch. Through the introduction of Basic Economy, they are trying to attract one-time guppies, but instead, devaluing the relationship they’ve developed over years with their whales. My employer spends over $120,000/year with United for my travel and I have been Global Services for 2+ years. I’m sure United’s marjeting department can confirm my suspicion that a vast proportion of Premier Exec, 1K and Global Services customers achieve such status through business travel, and a large proportion of those customers have their air travel booked through a corporate travel agency, like Carlson-Wagonlit. As such, those contracts require the agency to seek the lowest fare for the chosen route.

    In this case, the customer is disintermediated from the transaction and unable to heed the “are you sure” screens that are displayed at United.com. This means that United’s best customers are highly likely to be forced into Basic Economy fares and unable to benefit from frequent travel with United.

    My recent trip experience:
    I could not select a seat in advance
    I could not request a seat in order to sit with my companion for whom I booked an award ticket
    I was assigned a middle seat at time of check-in
    I could not change the seat I was assigned
    I could not be considered for an upgrade
    I did not receive any bonus award mile credit for my fare
    At boarding time, I boarded when Global Services was called, only to show myself to middle seat 9B

    Rather than feeling appreciated for being one of United’s best customers, I felt completely devalued and will seriously consider flying American Airlines or Southwest airlines domestically for the remainder of the year.

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