Ridiculous: United Doesn’t Let Basic Economy Passengers Check-In Online

While Delta was the first airline to introduce basic economy fares, United has made them significantly worse. United rolled out basic economy fares earlier in the year, and with these fares you don’t get a free full size carry-on, won’t receive elite qualifying credit, etc.

Furthermore, while United just introduced basic economy fares a few months ago, they’ve expanded them to virtually all domestic routes, meaning that these fares are more widespread than at the other US airlines. What this means in practice is that you’re going to be asked to pay a $20-100 premium to not be miserable. This isn’t about offering passengers a cheaper fare alternative, but rather about encouraging passengers to buy-up to a higher fare (which is to say that basic economy fares are roughly comparable in price to what “normal” fares where several months ago).

One thing I hadn’t realized, which was just pointed out by The Points Guy, is that United doesn’t let passengers on basic economy fares check-in online if they’re not going to pay for a checked bag. Passengers who check in online with a basic economy fare get the following message if they’re not paying for a checked bag:

Travelers who purchased Basic Economy and have indicated that they’re not bringing a checked bag need to see a United representative to complete their check-in. Once you arrive at the airport, visit an airport kiosk or check-in counter to verify your onboard bag allowance and receive a boarding pass. You may complete check-in online if you indicate that you’ll have a checked bag.

They really seem to be doing everything they can to make the basic economy experience undesirable, given how long airport lines can sometimes be.

To try and see this from United’s perspective, I guess the issue is that many people are confused about basic economy, and they’d rather resolve this at check-in than at the gate, where it could lead to a potential delay, and more work for the gate agent.

At the same time, this is a ridiculous punishment for a couple of reasons:

  • Bags will still be checked at the gate, so it’s not like this is the only place they’re verifying bags
  • People familiar with the policy are simply being inconvenienced by this with every single trip

Call me a conspiracy theorist, but I do think the primary motivator here is to truly make the experience as miserable as possible, which may encourage people to book away from these fares. United President Scott Kirby says that just over 30% of people are booking basic economy fares, and I imagine he wants to lower that number significantly.

What do you think of United’s policy requiring basic economy passengers to check-in at a counter?

Comments

  1. Coming Soon: United Basic Economy passengers will not be allowed to purchase Uno Pizzas onboard!

  2. I’ve been a 1K for many years on UA. They are my hometown airline. I’ve always loved flying them. However, after years of a downward spiral I walked away to AA (arguably not much better). I picked up their UA Explorer Card. Literally every time I’ve flown UA in the past year, I haven’t been able to get a free bag due to the requirement that you pay for the ticket with your UA card (work bought ticket, travel portal, etc.). UA is the exception either this outrageous rule.

    The point is that UA does not care about their customers and nickels and dimes them. It’s consistently about “gotchas”. Needless to say, I’m done with UA. Their past and current management cares only about their stock price. UA isn’t the Costco of airlines, they simply don’t and will not ever “get it” and for that reason, I choose not to be loyal to UA or really any airline.

  3. Well, you have to squeeze the lemon to make lemonades. As long as the lemon still comes for squeezing, why not squeeze harder to make more lemonades?

  4. Absolutely outrageous. If you’re an elite on a short flight these fares aren’t so bad – but so long as you can check in online and go straight to security. This really is unacceptable.

  5. The amusing thing about this is that on many traditional low-cost airlines (Ryanair and the like) only those who pay extra *can* see an agent to check in! United is truly opposite-land here.

  6. Also coming soon:
    — $10 “airport gate services” fee to have the gate agent scan your boarding pass
    — $5 “jetway” fee to walk down the jetway to the plane
    — $5 “boarding” fee to set foot on the plane
    — $5 “aircraft cabin atmospheric service recovery” fee for breathing on the plane
    — $3 “seat restoration” fee for covering wear and tear on the seat you’re in
    — $3 “scenic services” fee in order to raise a window shade and look out the window
    — $20 “non-premium” fee for not paying for a premium seat

    Ok, the above is not really true – or is it? I suspect there’s probably a non-zero chance that some of this has crossed the minds of some airline bean counters at one time or another.

  7. This also makes the check-in lines longer for everybody else. Unless they make a dedicated lane for basic economy passengers…

  8. I am a good friend of Gordon Bethune. He did an amazing job instilling spirit and customer service into continental. I’m a 1MM on UA because of that but I don’t fly them because the merger. United is a horrible airline and their ‘service’ is un-tied. I’m happy with Delta. They treat me like a customer and not a number.

  9. My goodness, have they turned into the worst carrier in the US or what? I mean, just merge with Spirit already. Hold up. Even Sprit doesn’t hate their customer this much!

    First, someone had to come up with this harebrained idea.

    “Gee, what can we do with this new low fare that goes beyond simply prohibiting customers to access services that have been available to them for decades? What can we do to make it MORE UNPLEASANT? What can we actively do to DEGRADE THE CUSTOMERS PURCHASING THIS FAKE LOWEST FAIR? I know! Let’s forbid them from checking in online! Let’s budget, say, $100,000 to go into the guts of our reservation system and change the code so that this ‘new’ fare prohibits checking in online? Wait! Except for if the customer is paying a fee for a checked bag! MIDDLE FINGER TO YOU FOR NOT PAYING MORE, YOU LOUSY CUSTOMERS!”

    Then they spent time (and the budget) to design, code, unit test, system test and then do user acceptance testing on this revolutionary enhancement, if by “enhancement” you mean insult. Or maybe they did extreme coding and sprints. I don’t know what their methodology was, but they actually did this! On purpose! ON PURPOSE! It’s like every four weeks some new form of customer abuse is exposed at this airline!

    *shakes head, mutters, walks away…*

  10. Agree to buying and paying in advance 2 pizzas on every flight and you can check in
    twice a year on basic economy fares (humor)
    Basic Economy passengers will be first to be Re-accommodated based on Uniteds need at check in.This way they don’t board the plane and can be turned away without dragging them down the aisle (more Humor)
    Real truth why would anyone fly them ever after kicking a 71 year old man in the head?
    United says it doesn’t represent their values of who they are?
    Sure it does!! Its arts with hating their team members when they fired many of them and robbed them of their pensions and it continues with their we don’t care smug attitude where money is always more important than people
    I dare them to have a customer relations department
    The phone lines would crash and burn
    Just an isolated incident?Management has created a hostile toxic work environment
    Passengers are crazy to purchase a ticket at any price and endure
    Even 200 dollars lower fare in First Class I still chose another airline
    Singed a former 1k and Premier Executive for many years

  11. United hates their customers, plain and simple.

    They’ll either LITERALLY beat you up by the check-in desk, or onboard the plane.

    If you fly them, you get what you deserve!!. Even if they were my home airline (and they use to be when I lived in Denver and NYC (CO). I would rather connect on someone else. People is it worth saving $10, $20, even $50 to to encourage the abuse.

    “come fly the hatefUl skies”

  12. Seeing as this restriction isn’t explained on United’s website at all, could this be grounds for getting tickets refunded somehow? I bought tickets mistakenly because I wasn’t paying attention to all the restrictions (I also didn’t think they would offer a service so bad, and i thought if anything I could upgrade it later). I’d really like to cancel my flight and get a better deal.

  13. The airlines don’t want you to do check-in in person. They want you to do this online. It costs them much less when you check-in online.

    The reason UA is doing this is to screen the size of your carry-on before you get to the gate. This avoids confrontation at the gate (something they’re surely trying to minimize!) and makes the boarding process smoother (because they don’t have hold ups for paid bag checks).

    Those saying things to the effect of this being done to inconvenience pax are laughably incorrect.

  14. Legitimate discount airlines are actually trying to make their business more efficient and their pricing reflects the need to save real costs / time and pass it along to consumers.

    United is just trying to torture customers into paying more. Extortion is not a sustainable business model. My god they won’t even let me into business lounge after arriving from an international biz flight. Why would any foreign traveler want to have a United connection after flying someone like ANA or EVA?

  15. Come on folks, it is obviously a ploy to make it very likely that basic economy gets the middle seats. Any othe rpassenger will find it easier to find aisle or window seats before B.E. checks in at the airport.

  16. I’m sorry, I really don’t understand how this is something UA is doing to make you miserable. You have a ticket that severely restricts the size of luggage you can bring on board. I think the most appropriate place to enforce this is at airport check-in. If it turns out your baggage is too large, yes, the gate agent can take your money and tag it for the hold. However, gate agents are busy doing other things. Check-in agents are the ones who specialize in the whole tagging-luggage business. How would you like to be on the flight that’s delayed because all those basic economy customers needed to gate check after trying to sneak on oversized bags?

  17. They are finally giving you more if you pay more, which is how it works almost everywhere else. It’s about time.

  18. @Jane — no, they’re charging you same, giving you less, and making you miserable to make you pay more. That’s how a monopolistic extortion business works. It’s been well documented that the fares did not go down, nowhere close to discount carriers levels. In fact you can pay $1000 for a 30min last minute flight and still have it be basic economy.

  19. If Delta is the “Wal-Mart” of the skies, United is the “K-Mart” of the 1990’s

    United may want to check out how that competition fared.
    In the past 8 years, Wal-Mart seems to be following the K-Mart path.

    My point is that when businesses get into the death spiral of stock price watching, the only winners are those that get their money out in time.

  20. The comment about flying Spirit should not be taken in jest. Spirit truly is a better experience now.

  21. I am a United 1K and have been for about 8 years. The previous poster who said he was a United 1K but couldn’t get a free checked bag is lying. If you have 1K status United doesn’t care who buys your ticket you get your free checked bag. The credit card used is not the determing factor except using the Exployer card gives even non-status passengers a free checked bag.
    If you don’t like the basic economy ticket and the restrictions don’t buy it. It is that simple. If you don’t like anything about United hop on over to Delta or American or Jet Blue or whoever else floats your boat. If you don’t like the domestic airlines fly Singapore or whoever makes you happy.
    Anericans still have a choice as to airlines so use it and stop complaining.

  22. Well whatever they do, people are still buying their tickets and flying with them. The best is to boycott them all together let’s say for a week and I am sure they will think twice next time they want to come up with something to squeeze people’s money. I heard a rumor soon they will be charging passengers $5 for using the lavatory on the plane………..I am just kidding.

  23. America seems to have the worst flying experience with limited carrier options in the world. Yay American capitalism.

  24. I’m in the sane camp as Andy 11235; I’m seeing this as a way to pre-screen the hand-baggage-only items prior to the gate, thus avoiding gate agent confrontations and other tasks that pull them away from getting the plane out of the gate on time.

    Is the whole Basic Economy concept their employing still really ridiculous? Absolutely. But I don’t think this is any sort of ruse to punish customers.

  25. Im sorry, but if you wish to buy a bare bones fare, expect to receive bare bones service. Its like booking through an OTA for a low rate and then expecting points on your hotel card

  26. The other thing is that you don’t get a seat assignment until the airport which means they can keep the market open to sell any available economy plus for another 20 hours or so.

  27. 30% is the number who look at basic economy, not who actually book it. At least do a little research before shitting on United (which is mostly warranted in this case).

  28. I’m sure Southwest’s executives are enjoying seeing their competitors self-destruct.

    (And, for those of you who truly think Spirit offers a better experience – check out their operational reliability compared to UA, AA, DL, WN. Better have a good back up plan!!)

  29. And this is why I’ll choose Frontier over United almost every time out of Denver.

    9/10 times, Frontier is cheaper up front and, if I pay them the same amount of money I’d be into United for to get a seat assignment, and a carry-on, Frontier give me a seat with more legroom (and usually an open middle), a drink, a carry-on, and a checked bag.

    Am I missing out on UA miles? Sure, but it’s not like they’re worth anything anymore and I couldn’t hope to score anything but lowest tier status, which is worthless from Denver.

  30. I remember the good old days of Continental Airlines…

    Then they merged and United Airlines dehubbed Cleveland…

  31. Love the UA apologists who think this is a benefit service for the customer. The “bag size screening” line of crap is about the funniest and lamest excuse I have ever heard from an airline apologist. I’ve been on more than my share of LCCs and ULCCs. Most managed have online check in and still screen the size of bags when passengers arrived at the terminal. Indeed, I distinctly remember one airline actually CHARGING a fee for NOT checking in online. At their terminal, they had a small dedicated section you brought your bag to be screened by size, they put a sticker on your boarding pass if it fell within the allowed size or made you check it (for a fee of course) if it didn’t, too easy. You couldn’t board the plane unless you had that sticker.
    Perhaps the leadership at United are not as competent as other airlines? Nah, not likely. More than likely it’s an added “incentive” to coax customers to pony up more cash lol.

  32. The BIG “3” US Airlines and its management are complete crooks. Greedy as hell. I have no respect for them what so ever. I enjoy screwing with them every chance I get as I hate them with a passion. These are indeed very bad people next only to Kim Jung Un.

  33. I’ll never fly United again but why is this ridiculous? No one is forced to buy steerage tickets but if you do, you do so knowing damn well you are opting into bare bones travel. We should stop treating people like they are stupid but I think it’s a good thing for the airline to make sure even before the person goes through security that they are sufficiently reminded that they’ve bought the shittiest of travel options. That way, no drama for the rest of us at the gate or during the boarding process. And if no one buys basic economy tickets, they’ll go away. As they should. Of course, I read elsewhere that 30-40% of economy sales are basic, where available. Ugh!

  34. This starts to remind me of a SNL sketch “low cost airlines” 😀
    It’s getting darn close to that.

  35. Last time I flew United there was still Continental Airlines. I could not be happier for not flying them at all. They are the Greyhound of the skies.

  36. You would think that United, given their terrible press of late, would make their product MORE appealing.
    Apparently they don’t quite get it.

  37. The reason UA is doing this is to inconvenience pax paying the lowest rate.

    Those saying things to the effect of this is being done to screen bags at the check-in kiosks are laughably incorrect.

  38. I flew Spirit to Las Vegas from Denver- which was the best flying experience I have had in years of flying United. From Vegas I went to Canada to visit my parents and flew Air Canada which was a good experience as well.

    Now, I have a flight from Calgary to Denver and United won’t let me change it to another day without giving me a financial spanking. The agents we’re rude on the phone and refused to check the prices on more than one day. My ticket is not refundable apparently (they should have mentioned that when we booked it).. and the change fee is $50. It came out to $550, which means they were forfeiting the money I invested into the previous ticket.

    It is cheaper for me to forfeit the ticket and lose what I spent and buy a new ticket online (even a United one) than to change my existing ticket through them. After this however, they aren’t getting my business again.

  39. “We give you the Spirit experience at twice the price.” The Basic Econocraponme project was simply a way to implement an across the board fare increase. They don’t want you to buy it – they prefer for you to pay the increase – but it makes them look relatively less expensive in searches. It’s evil and the airline is to be avoided whenever possible. Fly Alaska, fly Sourhwest, fly JetBlue. Or if the rock bottom price indeed the goal, fly Spirit or Fromtier.

  40. I see several reasons why this makes sense:

    With no advanced seating assignment, United can ensure pax willing to pay the “premium” for seat assignment can receive the best seats their fare code comes with. Those with BE fares don’t get that luxury, so this allows United to either upsell them at the counter or at least provide sorta what they’re offering to non-BE fares.

    Yes, it IS about pre-screening bags before they get to the gate. As mentioned by a handful of other commenters, there are usually 2, maybe 4, gate agents at the gate. Their responsibilities generally lie outside of re-ticketing or checking bags. They are forced to do so on many occasions because of operations, but that’s not their primary purpose. United has created more work for them by insisting BE fares get hand-baggage only that *must* fit under the seat in front of BE pax, for sure. And the number of people that either won’t realize that restriction or will try to skirt the rules will be high, I’m sure. Placing the onus on the pax and on the check-in agents to follow the rules and screen the baggage, respectively, saves heaps of time at the gate and for the gate agents who can execute the process of deplaning, boarding, and pushing back. A commenter mentioned using stickers like other airlines, and that’s a great idea. And maybe that’s what United should do.

    It is in NO WAY generally cost effective to force people to go to the check-in counters unless the bean counters have realized that doing so is the lesser of two evils. In this case, I’m fairly certain someone Lean Six Sigma’d this nonsense and realized the time wasted at the gate with gate agents enforcing rules that could’ve been enforced prior in the process (or NOT enforcing rules, thus missing out on additional revenue of upsells) was worth the additional effort and man-hours necessary at the check-in counters.

    This isn’t because United “hates their customers”; it’s about eliminating waste, increasing efficiency, and maximizing revenue. Saying so doesn’t make you an airline apologist; it makes you a realist.

  41. Lucky – this has been in place for almost 3 weeks.
    I think some of your team should really explore the sneaky restrictions being placed by Big 3 with BE fares. As much as I enjoy your adventures on obscure airlines, this would be more helpful to your US based readers.
    Just my 2 bits… and keep flying the friendly skies!

  42. While this is an inconvenience, it is a better option than having dozens of passengers being forced to gatecheck their bags because they forgot or didn’t realize they bought a basic economy fare. Security line screeners (which would be the first people travelers see if they check in online and have a mobile boarding pass) aren’t going to screen passengers for bag allowances. I

  43. Another thing – to the commentators saying this is about “punishing customers paying the lowest rate,” it’s kind of self defeating to do that if United has to pay more check-in staff to deal with an increase in basic economy customers. Boarding is already a mess, with passengers crowding the boarding gate, passengers carrying on too much luggage, passengers arguing with agents and flight attendants about the size or type of luggage, passengers attempting to swap and steal seats from others, etc. As a passenger that generally won’t be buying basic economy fares, I would like to make sure the boarding process isn’t made more painful than it already is with passengers, gate agents and others arguing about their baggage allowance. If United / American / whoever are going to limit the size of your carry-on luggage, they need to enforce it before customers get to the gate.

  44. actually often basic economy is only $15 more expensive, on the routes I’ve seen recently. Not as bad as I thought. Also, if you have elite status or their credit card, you can still bring a carry-on. Given all this, I think it’s about as mean as Delta’s or AAs basic economy – which is pretty mean.
    What can we really do? For the past 5 years I’ve defended UA at every downward turn. Again and again I thought they’d turned the corner. I even bought UA stock last year and made a lot of money on it.
    My patience has run out. However, I realized that I don’t have a real choice. UA with 1k status is still far better for me than splitting my travel between the smaller carriers like Alaska, Jetblue, Southwest etc, even though I know that they are better airlines. And I’ve had very bad experiences in the past with both DL and AA. If only we could undo all the mergers of the past 10 years.

  45. I totally read that policy as “you have to check-in in-person so we can verify that you do not, in fact, have any luggage.” It sounds like more of a way to control chaos in the boarding area than an attempt to make basic economy passengers miserable.

  46. Re the notion that this allows the bag restriction to be enforced before pax arrive at the gate: does anyone know whether pax choosing to use a KIOSK to check in at the airport (which the policy seems expressly to allow) are flagged so that they actually have to speak to an agent before completing check-in? If not, then obviously this excuse doesn’t work.

  47. Remember: United does not want to sell very many basic economy tickets, a fare class whose only purpose for existing is to be so bad by offering so little that it would scare people into purchasing standard Y. However, with initial results showing that after its launch about 1/3 of passengers have purchased BE over standard Y, the elimination of online check-in for basic economy is almost without a doubt to try to to make basic economy even less palatable. It means that if 30% still purchase BE, UA has not yet made it bad enough; another restriction was necessary. The elimination of OLCI is the result 😉

  48. Perhaps this is the best way to screen for luggage allowances. What the people defending this move fail to realize is that, in an attempt to squeeze a few more pennies out of pax, UA has created a completely obnoxious system that you’d have to be insane to create. Or defend.

    Look for other revenue streams, UA. Your brand really doesn’t need another hit.

  49. I had the same shitty experience. As a marketer I do not understand the strategy of artificially creating a worse customer experience to grow your business.

  50. The fact that B.E. travelers cannot check in online SHOULD BE listed on the B.E. restrictions so that the consumer can have the choice of whether to continue with the purchase, upgrade or go with a different airline.

    Had this been brought up to my attention when purchasing my ticket online I NEVER would have selected B.E.

    So having to try to get off of work even earlier to stand in line for who knows how long to flash my 4″ x 6″ purse at an agent at the counter is BULLSHIT!

  51. This is extremely frustrating and ridiculous. Intentionally inconveniencing passengers by not allowing them to checkin online for the purpose of upsetting them till they upgrade. Terrible and puts a sour taste in my mouth. I will trash talk this United and this policy to everyone I know as long as it’s active.
    They are one step away of charging a supplemental undisclosed boarding fee at the gate.

  52. Just got caught with a BE without knowing the real implication of my purchase and while I planned on bringing carrying on, I was willing to forgo checking in a bag, I now I need to bring a smaller under seat bag which will do little but make me more uncomfortable. According to the rules, nothing stops you from using a Kiosk to check-in, which clearly lays fallow the concept that the agent was needed to screen the bags. Also, nothing stops me from having a friend hold my too large bag if I chose to check in with an agent.

    So, the reason this was done is simple, One, extract additional revenue by making the process more dreadful to its customers so nobody actually purchases a BE, and two, allow UA to show fares on websites that are artificially lower than obtainable.

    Either way, going forward I’m voting with my wallet and flying ABU (anyone but United).

  53. The answer to this is simple… Just don’t bail them out. The next time they fail -and yes, of course these clowns will fail again- don’t let your congressperson vote to bail them out. Bad businesses must be allowed to fail in a healthy economy. Propping up failure benefits nobody. United is bad for the consumers, and bad for the economy. If you put all of United’s financial officers in a room and gave them a briefcase full of gold bullion tax-free, they’d find a way to turn that into a loss. Fuck these imbeciles. Let them drown.

  54. Not being able to print a boarding pass the night before flying home to the USA from Canada is f’in ridiculous. I’ve never experienced this on any other airline. Ugh. I just worked 50 hours in 3 days, and I have no patience left for this type of crap. I’m never flying United again.

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