United Introduces Basic Economy Fares with NO Full-Sized Carry-On

Legacy airlines around the world are introducing “Basic” or no-frills tickets, mostly to better compete with low-cost carriers. These tickets include not much more than getting you from Point A to Point B. Delta launched “Basic Economy” back in 2012, and American Airlines is reportedly on track to launch their own in 2017.

United today announced that they, too, will be launching Basic Economy in January 2017.

United is launching Basic Economy fares starting in January. Source: United

United is launching Basic Economy fares starting in January. Source: United

In a nutshell, United’s Basic Economy fares will be bare bone fares that come with tons of restrictions. These are the key “features” of Basic Economy:

  • NO Seat Selection: You will get assigned a seat at check-in (read: probably a middle seat), and won’t be able to change it, even at the gate. This also means if you are traveling in a group, you might end up sitting far apart.
  • NO Full-Sized Carry-On: You will still be able to bring a personal item onboard, like a backpack or a laptop bag. However, any bags larger than 9 in. by 10 in. by 17 in. will not be allowed onboard. United will let you bring a full-sized carry-on, though, if you are a MileagePlus Premier member (any status), Star Alliance Gold member, or the primary cardholder of the co-branded MileagePlus credit card.
  • NO Changes or Cancellations: There will be no refunds or changes with these tickets (not even with a penalty), and elites will not be eligible for same-day changes. You will simply have to buy a new ticket if plans change. The 24-hour free cancellation period mandated by the DOT will still apply.
  • NO Elite-Qualifying Credit: This means no elite-qualifying miles, segments, or dollars. Your butt-in-seat miles on these flight will not be counted towards lifetime statuses, and won’t even count towards the 4-segment minimum to qualify for any United status. You will, however, still earn redeemable miles.
  • NO Elite Upgrades: Even if you are hold status with United, you will not be eligible for upgrades to either Economy Plus or to premium cabins.
  • Board LAST: You will be board with the very last group. United will, however, still give you priority boarding if you have status with them, are a Star Alliance Gold member, or are the primary cardholder of the co-branded MileagePlus credit card.

United isn’t the first to launch a “Basic Economy” product, but might be one of the worse implementation for passengers yet. For instance, Delta launched their Basic Economy product way back in 2012, with restrictions like ineligibility for upgrades, changes/refunds, and seat selection. However, they still allowed full-sized carry-ons, and passengers have the ability to earn elite-qualifying credits from their flights.

On paper, I can see how some frequent travelers might be a fan of the new fares. Less people bringing full-sized carry-ons mean less competition for overhead bin space and a speedier boarding process, which can be good. Less passengers competing for upgrades also confer a higher chance of elites to get upgraded. But chances are, many United elites won’t be buying these Basic Economy fares anyway, so the effect on upgrades might be minimal.

Airlines are stratifying their product offerings, rightfully so if they think that’s best for their business stragegy. But it’s generally not a good trend to see airlines taking more and more away from passengers; this may lead to a worse travel experience—at least from a passenger standpoint. Airlines can spin it as “giving customers more choices” or “unbundling fares so you only pay for what you need”. In reality, though, Basic Economy fares likely won’t be a “discount” to current fares, but regular, more-than-Basic Economy fares will now come at a premium.

United will start selling Basic Economy fares in January for flights in Spring 2017.

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