United Backtracks On Basic Economy… A Little

Filed Under: United

While Delta introduced basic economy fares years before American and United did, United has been by far the most punitive. United first introduced basic economy fares in late February, initially only for flights from Minneapolis to their hubs.

It didn’t take them long to expand the concept, however, as United added basic economy fares to virtually all domestic routes as of May. This was a pretty drastic move.

Keep in mind that when Delta first introduced basic economy fares, the premise was that these fares would allow them to compete with ultra low cost carriers like Allegiant and Spirit. However, over the years the concept has changed, and spread to many routes.

Airlines don’t use basic economy to introduce new, lower fares, but rather they use these fares to encourage people to pay more than they did before to avoid this product. United reports that just over 30% of people are buying basic economy, meaning that nearly 70% of people are paying more than they would have before to avoid this. Through better segmenting the market, United hopes to generate a billion dollars of incremental revenue annually.

But United really got greedy with the concept, and started introducing basic economy on almost all domestic fares, even super expensive last minute fares. In other words, even business travelers on expensive tickets would have to pay an extra $15-50 to take on a carry-on or earn elite qualifying miles.

As much as I hate the concept, I’m afraid basic economy is here to stay. However, where United really crossed the line, in my opinion, is with adding basic economy fares to last minute super expensive tickets. If a business traveler is spending $1,000 on a last minute domestic ticket, it seems dumb to try and charge them for a carry-on, potentially causing them to fly another carrier instead.

It looks like United has reconsidered this decision, and they’ve now removed basic economy from some of their more expensive domestic fares. It’s not true across the board, but is true for many fares. Let’s look at a few examples.

Looking at a last minute Dulles to Newark fare, the cheapest fare is $175, and basic economy is “not available.”

Conversely, for a $442 last minute Newark to San Francisco fare, United is still selling basic economy, and trying to charge a $25 premium for a non-basic economy fare.

Meanwhile for Dulles to Los Angeles, you’ll see that one flight has a basic economy option for $274, while the flights that are only available at the full fare cost don’t have basic economy fares.

Bottom line

Unfortunately nowadays the legacy airlines have a lot of power, and they can typically get away with most things “just because.” So it’s always nice to see when they backtrack a bit, because clearly consumers have voted with their wallets when it comes to this. I don’t expect United will roll back basic economy all that much more, but this is better than nothing.

  1. So wait, flex economy is more expensive than first in some cases? Nice! Ha, too bad none of the ME3 carriers are that way.

  2. I’m waiting for feedback on someone actually flying the United Basic Economy flight to see how the actual gate interaction happens. If a flight is about to be delayed, and you present yourself at the gate with a carry on with the restricted ticket – and the flight is say, half empty (meaning lots of overhead space is actually available) would the gate agent delay the flight to process your payment to carry on the bag, or waive you on so the flight out show as out on time?

    Being a bag-cop probably requires some discretion 🙂

    OMAAT, assuming you’re interested in seeing the inside of a United plane, would you try out one of these fares and report on the implementation 🙂 And as for those rumors that whenever the basic economy passengers board, that the crew announces for the seated pax to be boo and throw air sickness bags at them while walking to their middle seat, I think that only happens on trans-con routes.

  3. I fly between LA and SFO all the time and I can’t fathom why anyone would fly United on the route now that they generally charge the same for basic economy that AA/Virgin/Delta charge for regular economy.

  4. @Eli — Exactly what happened to my wife. She was unaware of United adding basic economy and her company’s travel booking service defaulting to basic economy. She spent $325 for a two leg trip Lax – SFO – ATX and was charged $120 in bag fee’s on top of this. Not exactly sure how she racked that up. But to add insult to injury they treated her horribly from the check in process, through security, and boarding the flight. Knowing this you would be crazy to fly United. Very sad as I used to be partial to United and now wont touch them. I fly American but concerned about them picking up this bad habit. Alaska / Virgin is a great option.

  5. Never thought I’d put “Delta” and “better” in the same sentence, but Delta’s basic economy is better than United’s. They don’t charge for a normal carry-on bag (in addition to the personal item), and they let you pick your own seat at check in. In contrast, United doesn’t let you bring a carry-on and auto-assigns your seat at check in. Glad to see that they’re scaling it back from last-minute fares, but they are still more greedy than Delta.

  6. I’ve still got about a dozen flights booked on United from transactions made well in advance. However my flights on United stop cold as of August. They’ve successfully turned this into a terrible airline, and my clear last choice going forward.

  7. @emirat4ever flex economy allows changes without a fee which is sometimes cheaper than sitting in first class with no ability to make changes without a fee. Also tickets that allow you to sit in first class but not make changes (P and Z fares) according to United are technically “coach tickets that allow you to sit in first class” according to agents ive argued with over my own itineraries where a voluntary “same day confirmed standby” only gave me options for economy seats on flights that only had full fare F bucket tickets available in first. United doesn’t market these P and Z fares tickets as “coach tickets that allow you to sit in first class” there is no distinction when you purchase unless you read the long and cryptic fare rules which you have to dig for to find. On involuntary reroutes where I bought a P or Z fare and only F fare seats were available agents have called inventory management and had a P or Z fare seat opened up for me on that flight.

    This is confusing and on the surface doesn’t make sense but I understand that the policy is fully within their right. I do, however think United should be (forcibly) held responsible for making it clear what you are buying at time of purchase like they do with basic economy vs regular economy.

  8. They make the experience as miserable as possible so people avoid booking it. “What’s $15-25 more if I get treated just slightly less shitty?” They’ve managed to make cattle class look better.

    As a point of reference, I boarded a IAH-TUL flight that was ~60% full. I barely made my connection and was the last person (besides basic econ) on the plane. Though the flight was teetering on being late, they insisted all checked-in pax board the plane before any BE, and then made one BE pax gate check a bag, adding to the lateness of the flight, even with PLENTY overhead space.

    Poor discretion from UA robots.

  9. @Happy flighting yeah I kinda figured that was the case. Still, I wish Emirates would price like that lol. Their “Business Saver” is usually way more expensive than their “Economy Flex Plus”.

  10. Today is Monday. If you book oneway SFO-ORD for Thursday, basic economy is $239 and regular economy is $299 — a $60 difference for a last-minute, expensive fare. This is absurd. Why would anyone book with them when AA or VX charge the same for regular economy?

  11. @Emirate4Ever

    Well lots of carriers do this with flex economy and the lower business class fares. Just like Flex business can be less expensive than First class (LH/LX come to mind). I know a few companies that have plicies to buy business class tickets no matter what the price First is.

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