United Airlines Introduces Restrictive ‘Basic Economy’ Fare With Slimmed Down Benefits

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United Airlines has joined the bandwagon of airlines who offer a very trimmed down version of Economy Class fares that are even more basic that what we know so far.

ua-basic-economy

Very fitting for the occasion United chose to call their new fare ‘Basic Economy’ and once you have a look what this product entails you certainly know why.

Let’s start this off by saying United wasn’t the culprit who started this movement. European carriers such as British Airways and Lufthansa (among others) have these fares in their portfolio for a long time already and as far as North America is concerned Delta Airlines has them as well.

What these fares do is they shave off a few dollars compared to the traditional Economy Class fare but in return for these (often mediocre) savings the passenger has to live with many restrictions such as limitations in carry on, no seat reservation, no mileage etc.

What did United cook up here? Let’s have a look at their website (access here).

While Basic Economy fares have some important, additional restrictions compared to our standard economy fares, customers will enjoy the same United Economy® cabin experience and services, including dining options, Wi-Fi and inflight entertainment.

This introduction is already hilarious. Essentially it says that the passenger will fly on the same plane as if you book a different Economy fare.

Then they go on to outline the restrictions of this new fare class.

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • No combinability with regular economy fares or partner carriers. Interline travel is not permitted.

I highlighted the most important restrictions here and will explain why I find these are the real issue for anyone but especially someone with Frequent Flyer Status (especially United ones).

  1. Getting a seat assigned at the time of check-in is risky and you might find yourself very well in a middle seat somewhere on the plane. It would be very much recommended to do online check-in right away when it opens 24 hours before the flight. If you travel with companions you might be especially screwed because it is likely that you won’t sit together.
  2. The ‘personal item’ talked about here is a purse or a SMALL backpack. Not a bag! Frequent Fliers with status benefits can circumvent this restriction but regular customers can not and they would have to pay for checking their bag even at the gate (at least in theory).
  3. No elite qualifying mileage and spend earning for these fares isn’t great and might be negligible on short segments of a few hundred miles (such as Los Angeles-San Francisco) but on Mid-Con or Trans-Con flights such as Los Angeles-Chicago or New York this is significant value you should factor in as a loss and do the math if it doesn’t bite you at the end of the year when you come up short. I’m not sure how this would work with other Star Alliance programs as I highly doubt there is a distinction in the fares that would credit partner programs with award but not elite miles. You would have to double check the fare code with the program of your choice!
  4. No complimentary upgrades to Economy Plus and First Class for United Airlines Elites mean that for Elite members this fare class should be an absolute NO GO in the first place. Why spend time, money and effort to earn elite status when you forego one of the most important benefits of your status?
  5. Customers boarding as the very last means usually no space for any type of carry one (which you aren’t entitled to anyway under this fare class). Thought frequent fliers with status benefits can circumvent this restriction just as the baggage limitation.

Voluntary ticket changes such as same day confirmed and interline travel are restrictions but I don’t deem them that important.

United Basic Economy will only be available ‘in certain markets’ (I assume especially domestic) and it’s not published yet when these fares will be loaded. I did a few random searches for flights and the Economy Basic fare was never displayed at this time.

Based on my experience with other carriers the savings for these ‘Basic’ fares range between 5-15% so you’d have to do the math if that is really worth it to you.

Conclusion

As a frequent flyer I’d never consider to book such a fare especially when holding United Airlines Mileage Plus status that entitles me in the very least to Economy Plus seating and maybe even an upgrade if I’m lucky. If you need to collect frequent flier miles this should be no alternative for you either unless as mentioned above for very short segments.

I can’t imagine where you could fly with just a personal item and no baggage or carry on whatsoever unless it’s a same day return trip (and even then I’m always careful and have clothes to change for one day with me – got stranded way too often especially in the U.S.). That being said United is generous here that they allow frequent fliers to circumvent the baggage and boarding rule. Lufthansa and BA make no such exception for their members and Star Alliance Gold.

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