United’s Gaslighting Continues: Carry-On Fees Are For Customers’ Benefit

Filed Under: United

Earlier American Airlines announced that as of September 5, 2018, they’ll begin allowing basic economy passengers to take a free, full size carry-on with them. This is a huge victory for consumers, and shows that voting with our wallets works.

American claimed that more than 60% of customers were paying to avoid basic economy, meaning that they “bought up” to the cheapest non-basic fare. They spin that as a good thing, though it’s not the only valuable metric in determining the success of this. The real question is how much business they’re losing to other airlines because of the policy. It’s great if they can get 60% of people to pay more than they did before, but presumably they’re losing a lot of customers to other airlines, or else they wouldn’t have rolled back this policy.

Delta has offered basic economy for years, and they always allowed a free carry-on when booking these fares. That leaves United as the only one of the “big three” that doesn’t allow free carry-ons when booking basic economy fares. United has generally by far been the most aggressive when it comes to their rollout of basic economy, and I think they have spreadsheet-champion and bean-counter-extraordinaire Scott Kirby to thank for that.

So, before we get too excited and think that United will have to cave for competitive reasons, the airline has already stated that they don’t plan to. Leslie Josephs of CNBC reports that United doesn’t plan to get rid of their basic economy carry-on restriction because it speeds up boarding and ensures flights leave on time.

United will keep penalizing passengers and charging them extra to get the same thing they got at no extra cost before… and they’re doing it for us!

The funny thing is that even since basic economy has been introduced, I haven’t noticed any decrease in terms of the number of American or United flights I take where they announce “we’re expecting a completely full flight, and some people will have to check carry-on bags.” Quite to the contrary, I’ve seen some flights delayed because people were arguing with the gate agent over having to pay for a carry-on, not realizing that it wasn’t included in the fare.

Scott Kirby has been on a mission to generate an extra one billion dollars in revenue by the end of the decade by better segmenting the market. I suspect he will indeed reach that goal, though it does nothing to account for the hundreds of millions (or billions) of dollars that they’ll lose in revenue from customers who simply choose to book elsewhere.

There’s a huge benefit to online travel agencies increasingly letting customers sort itineraries by whether or not they include free carry-ons, and with United being the only one of the “big three” to still have this policy, it’s going to cost them dearly.

Keep voting with your wallets, folks! And by that I mean simply don’t book an airline when they offer basic economy in a market, because you’re rewarding their behavior regardless of whether you book basic economy or “buy up” to a regular fare.

What do you guys think — will United be forced to backpedal and add carry-ons to basic economy fares, or do you think they’ll stick to their current plan?

  1. I think it’s great that UA is prohibiting large overhead-bin bags for Basic Economy. I recently had to board later than I normally would and still managed to find bin space because the Basic Economy folks did not have large bags.

  2. Agree with David, while I think that this is going to cost UA a lot of customers (and revenue), I have enjoyed not having to run to gate to make sure I can board with Group 1 and still being able to get bun space. Contrary to what lucky says above, I have noticed a significant decrease in the number of full flights where ppl had to check bags.

  3. I think it’s a fair point to say it speeds up boarding and helps flights leave on time – that doesn’t mean it’s 100% beneficial to customers to have to pay for carry-on bags. It’s not all or nothing, good for consumers or completely terrible. And United has been improving a lot in their on-time departure and arrival records (obviously many contributing factors but this can certainly help).

    I fly ~130k miles on United per year, mostly domestic, and I haven’t noticed any major issues with people fighting about paying for carry-ons. Granted I fly largely at business travel times so few people buy basic economy but still. I have noticed far fewer instances of half the plane having to check their bags though on full flights there are usually still a few people having to check bags.

    I get the gripe with basic economy because of what it means long term in terms of them essentially offering less perks for the lowest price fare, but given how much they strip out I would never buy these fares anyway even with a free carry-on.

  4. It would speed up boarding if no one was allowed to bring on a carry on bag. In fact the airline would perform operationally better, too, if it didn’t have pesky passengers on planes.

    Operational performance that sacrifices the usefulness of the product for customers isn’t good business.

  5. @David and Bob – If basic economy passengers are the last to board, how does it benefit the late-shows other than those who are really cutting it close?

  6. @tda

    You’ve never had a connection to make while your flight was delayed? Most people who travel every week aren’t going to allot themselves 2 hours to connect. Personally I rarely have to book a layover that’s longer than an hour. In instances where there are delays, I’m obviously going to be one of the last ones to board. It’s nice to know that United will actually enforce the spirit of BE fares and now allow those passanges to enjoy a perk that I paid for and they did not.

  7. I don’t think this is complete gaslighting. For a variety of reasons I’ve been flying Frontier a little more this year, and I love the fact that boarding is quick and there’s so much bin space since they charge more for a carry-on than a checked bag. Same with Spirit.

    Even on Southwest, I can’t believe how many carry-on’s are still coming on. I would actually like to see Southwest and the 3 legacy carrier introduce a fee for all carry-on’s except for elites, but offer at least 1 free checked bag to all passengers. It would speed up boarding, cause less delays when there’s no space, free up more legroom in cramped seats, and allow those who really need overhead space (tight connections, people needing extra medical equipment, families with small children, musicians with the guitar that makes them a living etc.) to have it.

    Don’t tell Scott Kirby this, but they might actually make more revenue this way too 😉

  8. @Voldoo – I’m actually lucky enough to almost never have to deal with connections. That said, I don’t doubt people sometimes run late and end up boarding after BE. I just don’t think this amount to much of a perk, since the vast majority of people who are late for their boarding group will still board before BE. (With the exception of elites and CC holders who are also exempt from the BE carryon ban.)

  9. David and others aren’t making a good argument because typically basic econ folks will be sitting in the far back, so bins empty would be in the far back.

    And typical frequently business folks like David would have a seat assignment towards the front (even when boarding late). And most front folks can and do bring their bags.

    So if someone is seeing empty bin space near their row 10-20 it’s likely not due to basic econ folks who had a seat at row 20+

  10. @Alan Your point does make a bit of sense. If airlines reversed their carry-on and checked bag fee policies, it could save a lot of time during boarding and cut down on late departure fees. However, I would despise this as a customer. I strongly hate checking bags, even on Southwest where it’s free. I just can’t stand having to spend the time at check-in dropping off a bag and when I’m off the plane I want to just get going, not wait a half hour for my bags. On top of that, there is the (thankfully rare) possibility of the nightmare that is mishandled baggage. I just strongly prefer being in control of my own bags through the whole flight.

    But if the airlines allowed checked bags for free while charging for carry-ons, given all I’ve said above, the fee to use the overhead bins could be marketed as a convince fee. I would hate it, but the airlines might love it. This is already happening on Spirit, where check-in lines are intentionally super long to encourage pax to pay the absurdly high carry-on fee.

  11. Sorry, but none of these changes have persuaded me to buy an economy ticket instead of first class.

  12. HAhaha, give it up Scott Kirby. You failed to the tune of $100 Million. Oscar needs to fire him already.

  13. Here’s another data point: NK (Spirit) charges for full-sized carryon bags, and the difference in boarding speed between AA and NK is actually shocking. NK is very roughly twice as fast. Deplaning likewise. Or at least that’s the case here in DFW land.

    But as Gary said above, unless it’s all one system or the other, maybe the result is just a mess.

  14. Not sure where you folks fly to and from, but since AA introduced basic fares I have definitely noticed a decrease in the number of carry ons stored in the overhead bin. To be fair, wht’s the point in offering basic economy fares if the only restriction is upgrades and seat selection? Seems like customers are getting away with too much too easily. I am not kidding when I say that from DFW where I am located you can often buy last minute r/t basic economy fares on both AA and UA for $120. I have never seen fares as low on DL, and my assumption is that with this new benefit AA Basic fares will go up (as they should).

  15. Man these US carriers must be flying some very special 737/A320s with 1/2 the overhead bin space than the rest of the world – Ive never seen overhead bins becoming an issue anywhere else i flew or even heard of airlines trying to charge for carry ons. Not even LCCs that sell sub $10 tickets. It says something when Ruanair has a more generous policy than US mainline.

  16. Woot, carriers in other parts of the world are far more aggressive at policing the size and/or weight of carry on bags. The bins are the same size, passengers are simply more restricted for what they can carry on. Many EU airlines simply allow one piece of hand luggage total, not the carry on + personal item that US legacies allow. That all contributes to emptier bins on those airlines.

  17. Please stop using words when you don’t understand them. BS corporate PR messages and shoddy excuses for business practices are not gaslighting. Gaslighting is using psychological manipulation in order to make another person question their sanity. It’s used by abusers to keep their victims – wives, children, etc. – under their control. Please don’t minimize a serious, sometimes life-threatening phenomenon by applying it incorrectly and especially not to relatively trivial matters like this.

  18. Never understood the boarding mess and carry on hype in the US.
    In the rest of the world boarding is usually a quite civilized process.

  19. Flying in Economy in the US sounds like a nightmare. I have always paid for F when taking US domestic flights. It all seems so much more civilized here in the UK, but then I have never been on Ryanair.

  20. I have to say I fully agree with David and Bob above. As a United Elite basic economy makes the boarding process much smoother, and I have a lot less worry about running out of bin space. As well, even if I do decide to purchase a basic economy ticket, as an elite you’re still allowed a carry on.

    This is in many ways the best kind of policies for those of us with status: Policies that lower prices for infrequent flyers and ease the experience for frequent flyers.

  21. They could do like Ryanair, and let basic economy customers ALWAYS gate-check luggage, even if there are just 20 passengers on the plane.
    Ryanair is now enforcing this very strictly. Didn’t paid for priority boarding = big cabin luggage will be gate checked, but it’s still for free.

    This makes Basic Economy still less attractive, but at least it doesn’t place them in a competitive pricing disadvantage (e.g. in google flights when someone selects fares with cabin bag).

  22. “David and others aren’t making a good argument because typically basic econ folks will be sitting in the far back, so bins empty would be in the far back.”

    Not true. BEs ususally end up filling the middle seats in E+ because they cannot select seats at booking and those are the only ones left at T-2 hours.

  23. @Ryan JFC – always fun to see people in the comments yelling at Ben about some terminology when they also don’t fully understand it. Gaslighting isn’t only exclusive to spousal or child abuse, it’s psychological manipulation to make you question your sanity. Could be at work, could be amongst friends, etc.

    Get a grip.

  24. @Bob, first I will call You a fool to return your crude insult.
    Then, I will treat you as an adult for a minute with a bit of logic.
    If you apply inflation to the cost of a coach ticket in the 1980’s, you find that First Class tickets now sell for what used to be a reasonable price to fly coach.
    I see no reason to mingle with the likes of you in economy.

  25. It doesn’t speed up boarding because they are all in group 5. Elites at the front of the plane slow down boarding– most have carry-on bags and board first–and there is no W-M-A boarding for them. That is the real problem and it is impossible to address without upsetting elites.

  26. Isn’t it amazing how CEO’s justify taking more money out of your pocket? Just like parents say “this is going to hurt me more than it hurts you” just before they spank a child.

  27. Charging for carry on makes sense – but only if free checked bags are available.

    Fly in a country where free checked bags are still the norm. The overheads fly 50% empty. People bring a purse and briefcase on board and thats it,

  28. The other unintended perk about Basic Economy are all the free bump ups to Economy Plus. I can basically guarantee now that if there’s an empty seat next to me in E+, someone with a Group 5 boarding pass ends up next to me. My last three transcon flights had E completely full and plenty of E+ still available the day before departure only to be completely full the next day.

  29. Count me in as well in support on UA on this one. Want to fly domestic in BE? Be practical and bring a small backpack that fits nicely under the seat in front of you or buy checked luggage. And this smooths out the boarding process, despite anyone’s wishful thinking to the contrary.

  30. @mark. Enjoy the luxury of domestic F. All the free flowing $5 wine and processed snacks you can handle!
    And don’t forget 1″ of legroom more than my exit row (which with status comes with free booze and same food for free)

    All for only double the price!

  31. @Bob, We been there – done that.
    Too often some big, too fat for economy, noxious and obnoxious, goober (let’s call him Bob) takes the middle seat between the wife and me.
    Truth be told, on the rare occasion that I do fly coach, I claim to be fat and buy 2 seats for myself to avoid obnoxious, noxious Bob’s.

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