United Basic Economy Passengers Can Now Pay To Assign Seats In Advance

It’s quite interesting to see how United has modified their basic economy concept since introducing it early last year. United first introduced basic economy on select flights last February, and then extended it to almost all domestic flights last May.

United (in particular president Scott Kirby) was quite smug about the introduction of basic economy. Kirby thought for sure it would be successful if implemented across their network, and expected that better segmenting the marketing would generate a billion dollars in incremental revenue annually. When they presented the numbers, they did so based on the percentage of passengers they thought would opt for basic economy, and didn’t account for the customers they’d lose because of the introduction of basic economy.

The fact that an airline thinks they can introduce this without losing a significant percentage of their passengers shows how the US airline industry is desperately in need of more competition, because they basically feel like they have captive customers. The good news is that basic economy hasn’t worked out the way United had hoped, and they’ve backtracked on it quite a bit. Originally almost all domestic fares (even expensive last minute tickets) had basic economy, while now they’ve eliminated basic economy from many of their more expensive domestic fares.

Well, United has now decided that they want to segment their passenger base even further. One of the main restrictions on basic economy tickets has been that you can’t select a seat assignment in advance. As of February 1, 2018, United is letting basic economy passengers pay to assign their seats up until 24 hours before departure (at that point seat assignments become free).

As you’ll see during the booking process, the page asking you to choose whether you want a basic economy fare or not now says “choose a complimentary seat, or change or upgrade seats,” rather than “choose, change or upgrade seats.”

The next page shows “advance seat assignments may be available for purchase during booking and up until check-in opens.”

So, how much is United charging for seat assignments on basic economy fares? It will vary by flight, but for a Tampa to Chicago flight for later in the year, they’re charging $5 to assign a middle seat, $10 to assign a window seat, and $15 to assign an aisle seat.

For what it’s worth, the fare difference between economy and basic economy is only about $20 one-way

I guess there are two ways to view this change on United’s part:

  • Basic economy isn’t panning out as United had hoped, and they’re acting desperately to try and generate more revenue, by now letting you buy one of the main perks that that’s excluded on these fares
  • United is being smart in their effort to infinitely segment the market; after all, there are some people who may not value a carry-on, but who may still be willing to pay more to assign a seat; however, at some point this all seems a bit silly

What do you make of United now selling seat assignments on basic economy fares?


  1. I would pay $5 just for “not the back row” so I guess I would pay $5 for a middle seat just to avoid that, but in reality I would pay $10 or $15 for the aisle or window toward the middle of the plane.

  2. @chesterwilson – The irony of paying for a seat assignment pushing you to fly an airline where a seat assignment isn’t even possible is not lost.

  3. Haven’t flown on United since the merger with Continental, so no big deal to me. I expect that at some point United with be like Allegiant, Frontier, etc charging for everything little thing they can get away with.

  4. I need a cheap last minute round trip to EWR
    Spirit and united were both a 6 am departure and cost $45 a week and a half before departure (one way)
    I chose spirit because I can get my boarding pass on the mobile app on my way to the airport
    I don’t want to be “policed” at the kiosk with my personal item in order to print my boarding pass. And have to arrive 10 minutes earlier
    Bad move United !!!!

  5. $20 is a typical increment for one leg between basic and regular economy, so if you pay $15 to get an aisle seat you’ve now reduced your savings and given up flexibility, a carry-on and mileage earning for a whopping $5!


  6. $5 middle seats make sense if you have a companion with an aisle/window on a separate, non-Basic ticket. And IMO that situation is rare enough that it’s rather an insult to the customer to offer for sale the inflight equivalent of shit on a stick.

  7. @Mike Perhaps I am missing something from your comment but you can receive your boarding pass via the United App. Hell, I just used the boarding pass on the app to pass through security at IAH a few minutes ago.

  8. Wow what an amazing customer friendly enhancement! So glad that United let’s me unbundle all of these services and pick and choose exactly what I want!!

    *eye roll*

  9. I think there were a lot of people who bought BE on Expedia and Co websites without realizing it so this is their way of trying to goose some extra revenue from them.

  10. Whatever,? ! As an ex UAX employee who worked in sales, sound like they are grasping for straws to see whatever will work. So sick of them and their logic

  11. @Tom Schneider UA does not permit online check-in for Basic Economy tickets. You are required to see an agent so they can verify you don’t have a carry-on.

  12. I think the bottom line is there are of dumb people, rich people, and rich dumb people. UA is just trying to relieve them of that extra cash.

    I’ve never ever understood what would possess someone to pay $70-200 for legroom alone but I guess some people have money to burn!

  13. “I guess the should just change their name to Frontier ”

    @Joe no they shouldn’t. The expectations are different here. With ULCCs like Frontier, the baseline is that you’re buying a ticket with zero perks/amenities. People except nothing when they fly, so buying seats, bags, etc. are seen as an upgrade that is only available through incremental purchases. With legacy carriers people generally expect more. The idea that you’re choosing to downgrade from ‘the standard’ for a legacy carrier and then are going to start throwing money to move yourself back to the baseline is totally different. I don’t think people are dumb enough to choose the lowest legacy BE price and then pay-up to move back to a standard ticket they probs should’ve bought in the first place.

  14. Airlines like United make so much money from first class, that they have a vested interest in making non first class passengers as uncomfortable as possible. This helps ensure people In First Class don’t look back at steerage and say “that’s not so bad!” This is been true for a long time, and they’re expanding that model into economy itself. Making some economy seats smaller, and more uncomfortable. This is one more reason I refuse to fly in a domestic carrier other than Southwest. Their open seating model makes these sorts of games and possible.

  15. They will keep doing this until some pervert molests a kid because the greedy airline put the parents 20 rows away from thier kids. Guess I will have to find another airline the actually cares about the welfare and safety of my family.

  16. This makes me so mad!It just boils down to same fate for no consideration for the passengers.I will avoid United for the concept of same fate less service.Southwest or Alaska would be a good way to handle their portion of the passengers ,which should get smaller with this scheme!!!

  17. I have two United credit cards. I bought a ticket to/from NYC. I still haven’t a clue if I can check a bag for free or board with a carry-on for free. The flight is direct so I will just wait and see on the seat situation. United needs to better integrate the credit card benefits.

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