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Basic Economy (for a basic airline?) – United to Offer Bargain Basement Fares in 2017

An even lower class of service with even less benefits is now available in United Economy!

An even lower class of service with even less benefits is now available in United Economy!

The title says it all really – United is to add a bottom of the barrel fare class to their inventory in 2017. And as much I hate keep having to repeat this: the race to the bottom continues.

It’s not yet clear on what routes this option will be allowed and United maintains that they are subject to change. Our guess is that it will begin on United East Coast trunk routes between UA’s hub in Newark (EWR) and focus cities such as Boston, Washington DC, Cleveland and out to the mid-west in Chicago (perhaps more regional flights out of ORD too). It might go as far west as Denver, but given the ‘premium’ nature of UA’s ps trans-continental flights to LA and San Francisco we doubt it will extend beyond Colorado. Besides, United is already minting money on their highly lucrative ps service we don’t see any need to add this very low yielding fare bucket that we doubt any Star Alliance elite frequent fliers would avail of it.

It’s also not entirely certain yet when operations will commence but we do know one big thing – the United in flight experience will remain the same. The only difference that the cheaper fare will entail are a bit in the nuts and bolts of your travel experience, the primary one being the restriction of your hand luggage and your freedom to choose your preferred seat at booking time.

So let’s break it down. Per United’s official press release, here are the differences that you’ll have to adapt to this cheaper fare class (code yet to be assigned):

 

  • Automated seat assignments will be given at check-in, and passengers acknowledge at the point of a multi-seat purchase that seating together is not guaranteed. When you choose a Basic Economy ticket, your seat will be automatically assigned just before boarding, with no opportunity to change it. Based on when seats are assigned, we’re not able to guarantee that travelers on the same reservation will be seated together. If there are people in your group who need to sit together, this fare may not be the best option for you.
  • Carry-on bags are limited to one personal item, unless the customer is a MileagePlus® Premier® member, primary cardmember of a qualifying MileagePlus credit card, or Star AllianceTM Gold member.
  • There will be no voluntary ticket changes except as stated in the United 24-hour flexible booking policy.
  • Customers will not be eligible for Economy Plus or premium cabin upgrades.
  • Customers will board in the last boarding group (currently Group 5) unless a MileagePlus Premier member, primary cardmember of a qualifying MileagePlus credit card, or Star Alliance Gold member.

What stuck out to us is that new even more restrictive baggage requirement. Most US airlines are pretty lenient with their carry on policies, which is nice for folks as checked bags fees are the norm and are only getting worse. Here’s a bit more of a detailed breakdown of the new bag restrictions:

You’re allowed to bring a small personal item on board, such as a shoulder bag, backpack, laptop bag or other small item that is 9 inches x 10 inches x 17 inches (22 cm x 25 cm x 43 cm) or less. Full-size carry-on bags are not allowed unless you’re a Premier member, a primary cardmember of a qualifying MileagePlus credit card, or a Star Alliance Gold member. Basic Economy fares have the same checked baggage policies as regular Economy tickets.

Now those are part of the actual travel experience. Another huge change in this ticket class is your ability to earn miles and qualifying dollars on Mileage Plus. Essentially you’ll still earn miles but if you want to re-qualify as a Silver, Gold or 1K, it’ll be hard:

MileagePlus program members will earn redeemable award miles; however they will not earn Premier qualifying credit (miles, segments, or dollars), no lifetime miles, and no contribution to four segment minimum.

That might be a deal breaker for some (or maybe most).

The press release doesn’t give any detail about a potential for expansion into the international market, but we’re guessing that’s a big no for now given the fact that UA codeshares and interlines with so many other Star carriers and this fare bucket will only serve to complicate things, and it would be a system nightmare for them to try to integrate this cheap cheapo ticket with airlines the likes of Lufthansa, Swiss, Thai, Singapore Airlines or Asiana.

It’s a nice option to have an even cheaper option with even less benefits and more rules. But we’re just not sure how this will play out yet practically speaking. This might serve United well on their shorter high volume trunk routes or on lower yielding flights with less load factors just to get more butts on seats. It’s also good that UA frequent fliers have more options to choose from – but given the restrictions on Mileage Plus elite accrual, why wouldn’t you just choose the cheaper jetBlue or Southwest ticket? Kudos to United for trying out the concept at least, though – a marked difference from the Smisek era.

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