United Gets Punitive With Their Basic Economy Fares

Delta was the first U.S. legacy airline to introduce basic economy fares, which was their attempt to compete with ultra low cost carriers like Allegiant and Spirit. For select passengers booking the lowest fares, you can’t select seats in advance, can’t make any changes to your ticket, and aren’t eligible to upgrade.

Spirit-Airlines

Both American and United plan on introducing basic economy fares in 2017. Typically we see American and United following Delta’s lead, though in this case United is taking it a step further than the competition when it comes to basic economy fares.

So, what makes United’s upcoming basic economy fares the most restrictive?

  • 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)

united-lounge-london-heathrow-62

Both of those are extremely restrictive, and it’s a way for United to punish both elites and non-elites who book basic economy fares (elites will care about not getting elite qualifying miles, non-elites will care about not getting a free carry-on).

United plans to enforce the carry-on restriction by having basic economy passengers board with group five, which should make it easy for gate agents to police bags.

However, I’m sure some people have been wondering how strict gate agents will be, and figured those on basic economy fares are best off just trying to board with their bag, and worst case scenario they’ll pay what they would have otherwise paid. Not so fast, as United has a restriction in place to prevent that.

Specifically, if you book a United basic economy fare and try to carry-on a bag, you’ll not only pay the checked bag fee, but also a “convenience fee.”

So in addition to the $25 first checked bag fee you’ll pay a $25 convenience fee, for a total of $50.

united-checked-bag-fee

What United is doing here is very similar to Spirit. They charge $35-55 if you pay for a checked or carry-on bag at the time of booking or check-in, while they charge $100 if you pay at the gate.

spirit-bag-fees

So while I’m not at all a fan of United eliminating free carry-on bags on basic economy fares, if they’re going to do so, being punitive about those who try to bypass the restriction is the right thing to do. Otherwise you’re just giving basic economy passengers an incentive to try their luck at bringing the bag on. Given how busy gate agents are, and how they already struggle getting flights out on-time, that seems like a recipe for disaster.

However, I wonder:

  • How prominently they’ll display this convenience fee at the time of booking
  • How many gate agents will actually charge the fee, given that they’re usually in a rush to get the door closed; something tells me a lot of gate agents will just be “courtesy” gate checking bags, because they’d rather not collect $25 than have a flight leave late

Are you surprised to see United add a “convenience fee” for those checking a bag at the gate? Is it the right move?

(Tip of the hat to Wandering Aramean)

About lucky

Ben Schlappig (aka Lucky) is a travel consultant, blogger, and avid points collector. He travels about 400,000 miles a year, primarily using miles and points to fund his first class experiences. He chronicles his adventures, along with industry news, here at One Mile At A Time.

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Comments

  1. I am glad to see this change. This should finally solve the problem with too many bags being brought to the gate. Just think, now if you are an elite passenger who barely avoids a mis-connection, you MIGHT actually be able to bringing your full-size carry-on on board!

  2. I guess this is more incentive to arrive when boarding begins so I actually board with group 1 and don’t have to see the cluster that happens when they have to deal with passengers in group 5… I’m generally all for passengers being responsible for knowing what they are booking, but given how differently United is doing things from Delta and American on this one, I would be more annoyed at United for not anticipating the operational challenges (and issues for gate agents) in offering these new fares and restrictions.
    From a purely business perspective this seems like the strongest attempt at finally pushing up airfare significantly (those who study the airline industry know that airfares have actually fallen significantly since deregulation and in recent decades not kept pace at all with inflation). But I can only imagine even in my case as a loyal United flyer, if I stopped flying for work, this would completely make my decision to either switch to another airline’s loyalty program or not think about attaining status any more.

  3. I agree with Gene that this is a great move. It will give the airline a further incentive to get the gate agents to enforce things like groups at boarding time. What a concept!

  4. If you are a not a frequent traveler looking for the best deal, then UA basic is appealing. I am not sure why this is something that should bother people who would not choose the option. Agree with @gene that now for the rest of us there might finally be overhead space for those with tight connections etc. I would never choose basic y, but I can see how there is a segment of people who would. Sounds bad on paper, but people are always happier paying less.

  5. I agree this is best for everyone. Though expect some social media outrage in the next few months from unknowing passengers who buy these fares.

  6. I don’t agree with the comments above that this is a great move. If anything, it’s just going to make worse the cluster**** that is the usual process of boarding planes in America. People in group 5 who aren’t aware of what their fare means, screaming and protesting when they’re told they’re not allowed to bring bags on, agents having to placate them, etc. What already takes way too much time is going to take even longer.

    In any case, this is not a fare I will ever buy voluntarily. I miss the days of actual competition between airlines, instead of three airlines that converge at absolutely terrible policy.

  7. Having been Chairman w/ USAIRWAYS for more years than I care to remember, and not Gold with United, I’m happy about the extra charges for the economy passengers who are always trying to bring on bags that are too large, and in many cases, more than 2 items. I understand bringing on board the bag from airport purchased food or duty free; however, I still see women all the time with a suitcase, purse, and shoulder bag….and my favorite is when people not in first class start using the first class overhead bins. Before I received status, I gladly paid to check my bag as I don’t like having to babysit my luggage.

  8. This is a very welcome move. There are way too many bags in the cabin making boarding and leaving a plane complete misery. Plus what will happen in an accident with all these heavy bags on top of our heads?

    @QR the cluster**** at boarding is there because airlines screwed up and made carrying your cargo onboard far cheaper than checking it in. By making cargo cheaper to be checked in than carried onboard they are restoring the correct incentive.

  9. The extra gate check fee should also apply to those trying to bring too much carry-on onboard.

    Especially over-entitled millenials travelling on deeply discounted tickets, trying to bring over-sized luggage onboard.

  10. One aspect that I don’t see emphasized anywhere is whether this is per segment or per ticket. I would guess the former, since the goal is to maximize revenue.

  11. The problem with the “just don’t pay for basic economy if you want EQM” argument remains: many of us who are loyal to an airline travel for business. Corporate booking tools typically force you to book the cheapest (or close to the cheapest) available fare. It will be interesting to see how companies and travels agents like CWT adapt to basic economy.

  12. The biggest issue will be when people get these garbage fare classes from Priceline, Expedia, etc. bookings. They won’t know a carry-on bag isn’t included. The airlines should be required to advertise fares that include any extra fee for seat selection and checked or carry-on bag, so the consumer understands the full cost to travel.

  13. While I think some people will purposely claim ignorance in an attempt to get out of the fee, I think the number of people who are actually caught off guard are going to be very, very small. Before one can even purchase a Basic Economy fare on Delta.com, a pop up warning of the restrictions for the fare pops up, and requires one to check a box indicating acceptance of the restrictions. Similarly, Expedia and Orbitz now also include similar warning messages before one can proceed with booking (though I don’t think Priceline does).

    Somewhat similarly, extremely strict restrictions on size and weight for carry on bags have existed on LCCs in Asia and Europe for some time now (in some cases with penalties for not prepaying for checking oversized or overweight carryons), and people have adapted.

  14. Lucky, I caught a mistake: “… it’s a way for United to punish both elites and non-elites who book basic economy fares … ” should read:

    “… it’s a way for United to punish people who choose to fly United … ”

    Really, the race to the bottom is astounding. In what other business does it pay to piss off the public as much as possible by making it more and more difficult and irritating to interact with the company’s product? I can think of only one: the credit bureaus. Great company you’re in, United.

  15. This will be an issue for those who board later than their group because they came off a connecting flight or took longer while getting through security. Are flight attendants supposed to verify what fare people paid, and argue with customers?

  16. Bravo United!
    One way to keep MP’ers flying and getting basic miles while staying with United and not flying cheaper LCC competition. I also heard that one books a basic economy fare – they have to agree on a pop-up window re the luggage restrictions, fees, and no advance seat assignments implications. I guess that’s how UA covers its A#$ !

  17. The issue with these revenue generating tactics is that people will just change the way they travel. I saw this on a wow air flight recently, where the millennials knew exactly how to play the game to avoid all extra fees. I would rather that they focus on more value creating revenue methods rather than just punishing people. For my part, I am now totally comfortable with travelling for a week with just a backpack.

  18. When booking via an OTA, how will you be able to tell if you are getting basic economy or normal economy?

  19. This is a good thing for customers flying without many bags: they are getting a discount than general customers. It’s more fair this way, since currently if you don’t have any carry on luggage, you are paying the same and getting delayed by those who carry on more bags.

  20. What’s mysterious to me is the claim that they’re trying to compete with the likes of Spirit. Are basic economy fares going to be lower than the current lowest published fare? For better or worse, Spirit charges lower base fares because they unbundle everything. Here, it seems more like United is keeping base fares the same and then adding some fees on top of them, no?

  21. The penalty charge for a gate check for Basic Y is probably the correct move. These Basic flyers can get the cobranded credit card and avoid this. I don’t think this will be a huge difference in overhead space – still going to be crowded up there.

  22. I for one am glad to see UA doing this, if someone buys only on price they should get the same product they get with Frontier and Spirit (although the seats and entertainment will be better with free drinks and actually not having a seat assigned until check in could increase your chance of being in Y+). My guess is that the Agent won’t have the ability to not charge, I bet that UA will store the CC used at booking and the system will automatically charge it if a gate agent prints a bag tag based on that reservation. I also think this will be displayed at booking (similar to the warning DL gives), then again at check in, and probably a few emails in between. If UA were smart they would even give a $5 discount if you pay for your bag at booking or at check in to reduce the number of scofflaws.

    No one seems to bitch when Spirit, Frontier, RyanAir, and EasyJet do this but it makes me crazy when it is a new concept when UA does this to match the Spirit or Frontier ticket price.

  23. It’s not “punishment”, it’s economics! The vast majority of the traveling public flies less than once per year and all they care about is the end price. If they don’t have a carryon, then they have to pay for it. United also made it very clear that at the time of booking all of the conditions of basic economy would be made abundantly clear to anyone booking it, and give them the option to buy up to a regular economy fare. Frankly, this makes sense. It’s working for Spirit and Frontier, why not on a legacy with better service?

  24. Slightly off-topic. The local media has been asking customers what they think about United beginning to charge for carry-ons…. with no context whatsoever. About as irritating as the introduction of BE itself.

  25. there are several types of flyers. This wont have any effect on the majority who have traveled frequently. This is aimed at those infrequent non loyal flyers. The ones using a 3rd site or looking for deep discounts. The people flying spirit aren’t the same that are collecting PQMs. Besides the bag fare you don’t get to pick a seat. Boarding in last group will guarantee that coveted middle seat, or last row.

    If anything this is just a little option to try any generate some revenu on any remaining seats available. As United States it will only be available on select flights and can change. Plus it wont always be available. So perhaps a route that has a high number of flight over a short distance (lax-sfo) might have 10 basic economy seats on the last flight of the day when bookings may be thin. Or perhaps a route that regularly runs thin but they don’t want to chop it or make it seasonal so ther look to capture any additional revenue. IDK perhaps a TUL-SFO run
    I highly doubt you will see and basic economy seats on flights that regularly run at capacity like anywhere to Orlando or London.

    This is reminiscent of Cal lite or Ted without having to subsidize aircraft to a particular product.

    Just like how Norwegian Air International is touting 69 dollar one Way fees across that Atlantic. But you get not even a cup of water, and can’t check bags or use overhead spaces. I highly doubt many people travel across the pond with nothing but a backpack and a bottle of Dasani. There will be consumers of this. But it will be a minority. Companies have come before touting the super cheap Atlantic flights and all have vanished in a few years as the product or lack there of disintegrates.

    What I am curious about is if this will be available on mainly mainline routes/aircraft or will the be allowing this on their regional feed of aircraft. The emb-145, cry-700,900, and emb-170,175s. There is no middle seat, the smaller 145,700,900 aircraft you have to gate check anyway. If one would be inclined to purchase a basic economy ticket that is where the maximum benefit may lie. Although I’m sure you would still be charged for a gate check it would guarantee no middle seat.

    Time will tell…

  26. How will they charge a fee at the gate? What if the customer refuses to pay? What if the customer calls the credit card company to do a chargeback?

  27. If they refuse to pay they don’t go. Bag fees are common. It’s the extra 25 dollar confidence fee that will upset them. They will huff and puff and ultimately pay. They will go on twitter and facebook and denounce this atrocity. They will condem and spit vitriol towards united. All the while knowing that they clicked the “I accept the fact that this cheap ass basic economy fare entails me to a seat and a beverage but no more”

    And is it really going to be that cheap? If it’s just 50 dollars cheaper then after you pay your bag fee and convince fee you are right back to a standard economy seat. Only you didn’t get to pick a seat. Enjoy your flight.

    To Donna I highly doubt people are going to sign up for a credit card weeks, months in advance for to avoid paying a 25 dollar confidence fee onlY to have a 95 or 450 dollar United CC membership fee after the first year of course. But you never know..

  28. Like others have said. This is standard practice on the “lower tier” airlines. I say the because I have yet to see Lucky Luciano do a review on Spirit, Allegiant, Ryan Air, and Easy Jet. Probably for good reason.
    Sometimes you really do get what you paid for.

  29. Hi Ben. On a somewhat related question, may I ask when you travel, do you only travel with the full size carry-on bag alone? How do you determine how many bags you need to carry based on the duration of your travel or are you a really good packer? I’m just curious.

  30. I would like it if United just let them check in for free(up to 25lb) but charge high for carry on.

    I flew on Hong Kong Airline to Bali a few weeks back and the overhead bins was so empty! Even its a full flight! The airline allows free check in but the carry on got a very strict weight limit. It was nice to board and unboard more quickly!

  31. This makes sense economically and I do agree that the airlines should enforce the carry-on rules, if necessary with extra fees.
    But that doesn’t change the likelihood of this being a mess at boarding time, making flying in the US even worse. Some OTAs stitch together flights on different tickets into one itinerary. So, picture an international traveler connecting to United’s basic economy (which wouldn’t be possible on one ticket purchased on united.com) with their (now) too large carry-on, possibly not speaking English that well. And 1-2 cases on a flight will risk an on-time departure, punishing everybody, not just to rule-offending passenger. Low cost carriers in Europe started to go around the boarding area to identify passengers who might need to pay. In Asia, they have started to enforce it at security, sending passengers with oversize carry-on back to the counter for check in and fee payment. All of those are better ways to handle it then at the time of boarding.

  32. It looks like the ghost of Smisek is still plaguing United. United is forgetting that Spirit has far more efficient aircraft, lower staff costs, and lower overhead costs. Winning the race to the bottom isn’t a win.

    If the airlines, especially United, want to improve their on-time performance, they could start by making the first checked bag free and charging for large carry-ons.

  33. You can’t even possible start comparing UAL vs Spirit

    Look at United vs Spirit in baggage fee income. The latest I could find was from 2015. UAL 673,000 vs Spirit 289,000.
    Destination UAL vs Spirit 342 vs 59
    Ual vs Spirit fleet 724 vs 93
    It’s hard to count efficiency when you have that big a difference in fleet size. Also Spirit flies one common aircraft. UAL has 7 different types of aircraft and has 13 different models of said aircraft compared to Spirit’s 3 models of same aircraft. That’s just mainline alone.
    You have a niche market & customer airline vs a global one with one of the best route networks out there.

    Basic economy only being available in select markets and not all the time. Will be interesting to see what markets will be the test bed.

  34. ***United already has begun this punishment of both the infrequent bargain seeking economy pax and elites who self finance their own frequent travel and have shown loyalty in order to gain the benefits that were promised as a thank you for that loyalty. [7 year 1K pax here]..

    Let me give you an example as posted today per the UA website;

    EWR – FLL: Sat Jan 21st on UA

    One way Economy Fare options =

    $69 BASIC Economy or

    $600 FULL FARE Economy

    Nothing in between. Usually a route like this would have a cheap Economy fare for approximately $220 (which I’m fine with paying and also enjoy earning the complimentary space available upgrades, and most importantly; earning the needed PQM & PQD to retain my status as a loyal 1K).

    HOWEVER, I will be unable to EVER AGAIN EARN ANY ELITE STATUS, MUCH LESS retain my 1K STATUS moving forward at this new pricing structure which FORBIDS earning PQD & PQM !!! This is MASSIVE BAD NEWS!!

    These new punishments ELIMINATES the “middle class flier” basically by taking away the mid level pricing structure long utilized to fund travel for middle class families and small business owners.

    Now there is an ENORMOUS DIVIDE of the corporate executive class who can afford to bill their travel departments the gigantic price increase for Full Fare Economy and the LOW INCOME pax in the far far back of the plane.

    United made a financial decision to nolonger care about servicing the middle class passenger, like myself, who managed to earn 1K status based on purchasing all my flight segments with discounted Economy fares, in Economy. (Mind you i still also spent the needed dollar quota required for earning 1K)

    I have NEVER felt more INSTANTLY discarded as a customer as I do today by United Airlines. I’m hurt, offended, furious and in shock to be honest.

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