United Requires Basic Economy Customers to Be Shamed By an Agent Before Checking In

I read late last week in a post on Facebook that United didn’t allow Basic Economy customers to check in online and thought surely that was wrong. It turns out it isn’t wrong.

If you say you’re checking a bag when you check-in online, and pay for the bag, you can complete the check-in process. But if you say you aren’t going to check a bag, United won’t check you in and tells you to deal with it at the airport.

  • That’s a problem. It means you need to be at the airport earlier, to make the check-in cutoff for the flight (which is going to be earlier than necessary compared to just going straight to the gate and making the flight.

  • Not only does it waste a customer’s time, United is making it more likely that customers will miss flights.

The plausible reason for doing this other than making travel worse for the customer and other than requiring the customer to identify themselves with a ‘Scarlet B’ at the check-in counter is that United wants to make sure the customer really qualifies to travel without a checked bag.

Basic economy customers (except elites and co-brand credit card holders) are not permitted to bring a full sized carry on bag onto the plane, just a personal item. Usually that means having to check your carry on. So the idea must be to have a chance at the check-in counter to verify that the customer isn’t going to be bringing a bag to the gate that they’ll have to check there at a penalty rate.

Delays at the gate delay flights, and charging the customer at the gate would be an even worse customer service experience… for those customers who are traveling with a bag their fare doesn’t allow, not for those who aren’t.

Regardless United is using Basic Economy as a broad-based fare increase, albeit a complicated one, and is making travel difficult for anyone unwilling to go along with it.

And United claims that they’re so transparent about the restrictions on these fares that customers shouldn’t misunderstand, why is this necessary? And if being transparent is enough, why not just add a bolded and red popup as part of the check-in process but still allow Basic Economy customers to check in online?

Daryl Chua has a screen shot of what United tells Basic Economy customers trying to check-in online:

You are not checked in.

Travelers who purchased Basic Economy and have indicated that they’re not bringing a chceked bag need to see a United representative to complete their check-in. Once you arrive at the airport, visit an airport kiosk or check-in counter to verify your onboard bag allowance and receive a boarding pass. You may complete check-in online if you indicate that you’ll have a checked bag.

Perhaps this check-in restriction doesn’t apply to elite frequent flyers and co-brand credit card holders, but if it does just indicate you’re checking a bag, Basic Economy doesn’t take away your free checked bag allowance.

After all since it’s a benefit of the credit card, if United made the benefit contingent on your fare there would be regulatory problems with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

They can make elite benefits like upgrades contingent on your fare (no upgrades for Basic Economy customers, natch). But they can’t make free checked bags or priority boarding contingent because those are credit card benefits not merely elite benefits.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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Comments

  1. I’m wondering what if a star alliance gold member(not a united one) travel in basic economy fare, will he or she get a free checked bag?

  2. Why fly united? In fact why fly at all? People really like being subjected to communist style rules that these company impose on people? Where is your voice of freedom?

  3. i could have bought a united ticket out of EWR the other day. it was $50 less than the next least expensive ticket. and EWR was much more convenient and accessible than LGA or JFK.
    but i chose to use points on jetblue out of JFK instead, precisely because the united ticket was basic economy.
    if munoz thinks basic economy is good for business, he needs his head examined .

  4. “After all since it’s a benefit of the credit card, if United made the benefit contingent on your fare there would be regulatory problems with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.”

    The CFPB may not be long for this world assuming Congress and the President fulfill the promise to close it. I’d be interested to know if, you were the one making the decision, would you keep the consumer protection provided in the above quote or do you think it is ultimately undue government regulation on the right of private parties to contract.

  5. I think United simply wants to enforce the fare. If the fare says you cannot bring a carry on cabin, they want to make sure the passenger didn’t somehow slip the carry on (accidentally) simply because they’re not used to fly the basic fare.

    While it discomfort passengers in general, if United felt the need to enforce he force strictly may relate to the honesty of passenger or americans in general.

    Maybe its better to have delayed flight rather than dragging out a basic fare passenger carrying cabin luggage, all the while allowing other basic fare passenger who have credit card or premium status freely putting their luggage in carry on compartment.

  6. Cheap flying means more rules, do not see the real problems. Read the rules before you sign. Accept/not accept…
    If all things would be the same in time….we all still had horses

  7. @Edwin but it’s not cheaper flying than before, it’s the same price with new restrictions. And the rules do NOT say when you are booking that you will not be permitted to check in online if you aren’t checking a bag. That part comes as a surprise.

  8. @Jasper It should. That’s one of the *G rules. An extra piece of luggage. 0 + 1 extra = 1. I used basic fares (without luggage) twice, with Aegean and will TAP. Both allowed me to take one piece.

  9. I don’t believe United promotes online checkin as a product inclusion for any fare or traveler. It has come to be expected since it is so common but free checked baggage and a reserved seat used to be expected by everyone too. United clearly wants Basic Economy purchasers who aren’t checking a bag to be sighted and dealt with by an agent at the front counter to avoid “baggage misunderstandings” at the gate where time and nerves are in short supply. This article title is clickbait.

  10. This only happened because Spirit and Frontier were taking too much market share away from the legacy airlines. They realized that people will sacrifice service and amenities to pay even $20 less for a flight. Now they (United, American and Delta) can advertise dirt cheap fares to compete with Spirit and Frontier. It’s become a race to the bottom.

  11. Gary

    I understand OMAAT posting it so late but you?!!! How is that an industry veteran like yourself didn’t know this yet? I faced this issue close to 3 weeks ago on a EWR-ORD flight.
    Glad it’s finally out in the open but this has given me a reality check on how aware bloggers are of what’s going for main cabin passengers.

  12. @Roy:

    Except I have flown Spirit without a carry on bag paid for (just a small backpack within size limits). Guess what? I checked in online. So the argument that United has to do this is specious.

  13. I’m not saying United’s policy is particularly unfair,

    but, as usual,

    their rule-intensive procedures are generating even more unfavorable publicity for their brand,

    as is generally true of the entire industry.

    I’m just glad that, through websites and blogs like these, a lot of these arrogant and high-handed attitudes by the supercarriers are finally getting the adverse publicity they deserve . . . .

  14. I doubt Star Alliance Gold guarantees a checked bag. We accidentally booked a Lufthansa eco-lite fare and had to pay for our checked bag, and we are both Star Gold.

  15. The whole legacy carrier BE thing is a money grab. It cracks me up when I see a BE offering from an airport not even served by a LCC/ULCC.
    I thought the whole party line was these these lame fares were offered to the public that demanded them and to compete with Frontier/Spirit/Allegiant et al?
    How do UAL, AA and DAL “compete” with them when they don’t even fly to an airport?
    The spin is embarrassing.

  16. @mike. Not true. Legacies lied saying basic economy was to compete with ULCCs when it was a pure bait and switch. They took their currently lowest fares and made them basic fares without dropping the price hoping people would pay an extra $20 more. There needs to be a class action.

  17. This is a big deal. Your average infrequent or even frequent flier doesn’t read this blog or any other. Your average consumer will have no clue at this point what is included or not included with the various flavors of fares withing one airline and among different airlines. There has to be some kind of transparency/standardization/disclosure up front about all the regulations and limitations of the ticket you are buying- before you buy it. And that will probably never happen unless it is required by law. I don’t care whether Oscar Munoz thinks that people would gladly pay $100 less to not have lavatory privileges on a plane. If he wants to offer such a ticket and people know what they are buying and choose it, fine. At this point, your average consumer has no clue what he or she is getting.

  18. @Gary. The basic economy fares are basically a alliance killer. I am unsure how *Gold works on United Basic Econ, but I can tell you if you book a Economy Light fare on LH you get NO luggage benefit for being *star gold. That’s crap and flies in the face of the whole reasoning of status.

  19. @Larry, you make the key point. The mantra is that they are offering more “choices.” But the only choices are to pay the same for substantially worse service or pay more for the same (already mediocre) service. At the same time they want to make themselves look more attractive on searches; make more money when people avoid BE; and, indeed confuse the occasional traveler. If you want to raise your prices across the board do so honestly. Don’t hide behind this marketing sham.

    But we need to vote with our wallets, something they think we’re too dumb to do. Scott Kirby sees people paying the “be treated halfway decently” surcharge and salivates at the revenue. He also needs to see people avoiding his airline altogether.

  20. Agree w many comments ….. I haven’t seen this mentioned, but —

    At EOD, there is no way this policy and its trickle down does anything except INCREASE costs for United. Which sort of defeats the overall purpose, no? If there was a cost benefit analysis done, I bet it was badly flawed, or more likely ginned up to provide the answer that management had already arrived at.

    It’s a real look under the hood at how poorly managed and prioritized UA truly is by top brass.

  21. Søren Kierkegaard supposedly said, “if you label me you negate me.” I reject any attempts to pigeonhole my blog. I write what I’m interested in, and if others are similarly interested they’ll read.

  22. Ditto the Lufthansa Light fare. No checked bags allowed. At least the desk agents are apologetic and slightly mortified (good sanity check on the absurdity of it) but its still quite a ‘hunh??’ moment.

  23. Basic economy is NOT about competing with low-cost carriers at all. United does not really want anyone to book basic economy.

    What they are doing is a experiment in pricing psychology. They need customers to get used to choosing something other than the cheapest available option, which is what most ticket purchasers have done for years.

    Therefore, it is important that basic economy be portrayed as being a miserable product. A rational airline will even be willing to bear ADDITIONAL costs to ensure that consumers believe they will be shafted if they choose basic economy.

    If you scare the customer away from that option, and encourage them themselves to choose something more expensive, then you have won the war. The customer feels empowered and is now a buyer of intelligence and distinction because they avoided a bad option. They will brag about it, tell their friends, and do it again and again because they are now not the “kind of person” who would buy the cheapest flight.

  24. On the market of the industry like other airlines offered the same fare with different name, but the same rules applies; and if you go to buy a ticket online on United, it tells you around 25 times about ” PERSONAL ITEM ALLOWANCE” only; it explains very detailed about it. At end passengers have to click “accept”. My problem is: WHY PEOPLE COMPLAINING ABOUT SOMETHING THEY KNOW WHAT THEY ARE GETTING ON? May be because they don’t like to read? Nothing is hidden when they are buying. WHY COMPLAIN AFTER SEE ALL RULES APPLIED? It does not make sense to me. JUST READ BEFORE YOU CLICK ACCEPT! There are many different fares and the difference on prices are not much at end! LET’S JUST BE RESPONSIBLE AND TAKE KNOWLEDGE ON WHAT WE ARE BUYING! Simple!

  25. A truly ‘United’ way to think.

    Every other airline is reducing the number of check-in agents and reducing the need to go to a check-in desk.

    Except United.

    For their least profitable customers, make them visit a desk more frequently to necessitate paying more workers to verify and hassle customers.

  26. You would think they would remove the benefit listed on Star Alliance website if it’s no longer honored. *Gold = lounge and 3 carrot sticks. Nothing else.

  27. @Troy communist style rules? The only reason why United is even allowed to do this is because the market is letting them and the government isn’t doing anything to regulate this! I wish Congress would grow a pair and actually regulate this because you know that the AA and Delta are closely watching…

  28. What’s worse than that is Airline customers playing the game of bringing that luggage to the gate and in most cases United waives the baggage fee due to excess luggage on board and sends the bags to the cargo bay

  29. that’s just not right when people are paying the ridiculous fees Airlines are charging to check bags it’s a 15 billion dollar industry just more ways to screw the economy customer

  30. Thanks for posting about this, Gary. Though a few people here were already aware of this policy, this was news to me and I’m sure to many of your other readers.

    As I’ve mentioned before, I think you can provide an additional service by repeatedly advising folks of their good alternatives to the shrinking services and seats on the oligopoly that dominates domestic air travel. More legroom on JetBlue, for example. And a better frequent flyer program on Alaska/Virgin America.

  31. Gary, I missed the shaming part of this in your article? Granted it may be less convenient and more time consuming for a travel veteran like yourself, but there is no shaming as part of the check-in process. Also, while it may not be cheaper, is it against the law for a company to try to make more money? I agree UA didn’t;t lower their prices, but that is not evil or against the law. I realize you are in the business of generating website traffic, but you continue to put out misleading titles to articles.

  32. You’re not required to purchase this ticket….and you shouldn’t be running late for your flight. Also United isnt the 1st airline to provide such a fare just the latest.

  33. Maybe someone else has commented on this, but having checked a bag is no guarantee that the passenger is not traveling with a carry on that UA will need to check at the gate.

  34. It is a terrible practice that frustrates travelers and agents.

    I am TSA pre-check so I leverage that and I go directly to Premier Check-In, and I am not Premier…United has many of these frustrating practices (like this bag crap with Basic Economy).

    United inconveniences me, so I iinconvenience them. I am respectful with Agent; however, I remain “matter of fact:”. I usually state to the Agent that: “United put us both in this awkward situation. Please check me in and get me on the plane.” I don’t budge.

  35. Thanks for the info. I usually fly Delta but United had the better rate, until I discovered on the day of my flight they charge for a bag if, (God forbid) you are not an elite customer! What BS, last time flying United. Flying is already disgusting and frustrating enough, nickel and diming people does NOT help with customer service

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