Why United’s New $9 Early Boarding Fee is Really a Carry On Bag Fee

American Airlines began the race to charge checked bag fees. First it was a second checked bag fee, then fee for the first. It became industry standard with Southwest remaining as the outlier.

With passengers charged for checked bags they began carrying more onto the plane. With planes largely full for the past several years there hasn’t been enough bin space to accommodate everyone, leaving the last passengers to board having to gate check their bags usually meaning that they must collect those bags at baggage claim.

Alaska Airlines and now American are installing larger overhead bins to better accommodate passengers. United on the other hand is using the price mechanism to allocate this scarce resource.

Airlines used to let any passenger sit in any seat without an extra charge, but then realized that some seats are more desirable than others — and there are a limited number of those. Customers will pay more money, and anything that resembles a scarce resource they go on to charge for — like bin space.

Seat assignments on a full flight are an easy way to ensure only people who have paid for or are otherwise entitled to a seat are sitting in it. The monitoring costs are low. The passenger whose seat is improperly taken will flag down help. Flight attendants have manifests (and on United frequently don’t let passengers swap seats onboard without a fee).

Overhead bins are a scarce resource that are tougher to monitor on a passenger-by-passenger basis. Yesterday I wrote about United’s new priority boarding fee and called it a carry on bag fee, United’s way of monetizing scarce bin space without incurring high monitoring costs. There was push back.

Let me explain and see if you agree with me.

Elite frequent flyers, premium cabin customers, and co-brand credit card holders get to board earlier in the queue anyway. Passengers outside of this group who pay their $9 essentially get assured they can move from the group that may have to gate check their bag to the group that won’t. And that leaves passengers not paying the $9 and who would have boarded in front of them gate checking bags.

United even tells you in a barely masked way that this is $9 for overhead bin access.

They’ve long offered a bundle of priority check-in, security, and boarding. For Denver – Austin I’ve seen this at $85. This new $9 unbundled fee will mean many more passengers taking advantage of just access to overhead bins.

Gate checking is free of course and maybe there are some people who don’t mind. That’s called price discrimination, and they’ll save by not paying this fee.

However there’s little to suggest people want to spend more time on the plane squeezed into their coach seat than they have to. It’s important to board early (or rather, not last) to secure access to overhead bin space, and ideally bin space near your seat. United realized people will pay for that.

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 »

More articles by Gary Leff »


  1. “With passengers charged for overhead bin space they began carrying more onto the plane.”

    I think you mean “With passengers charged for checked bags, …”

  2. You’re doubling down on this? Really?

    UA was already selling this. They’ve just unbundled part of one of their ancillary fee bundles. No a big deal – or really anything at all of note.

    And you may want to correct the typo in your headline “Why United’s New $9 Early Boarding Fee is a Really Carry On Bag Fee”

    …a really carry on bag fee?

  3. They used to sell Priority Access for about 10x the price, not standalone early boarding.

    Even United says this is new. And that the reason to buy it is access to the overhead bins.

  4. I hope their IT is smart enough to manage this, otherwise I predict what’s going to happen is failure to deliver. By the time group 2 has boarded it’s usually always half the plane already. (On a Thursday at SFO half the plane boards in group 1) Add in a few more and not even group 2 will be guaranteed. Which is precisely why they are not calling it an overhead bag fee. I predict more air rage incidents on United.

  5. This post doesn’t address the point that, with the introduction of basic economy fares (which do not allow a full-size carry on), full overhead bins have become much less common on United. It seems like it’s actually fairly easy to find overhead space now because a decent chunk of the passengers have to check their bags. So people who wait and board in group 4 (the lowest group that has carry on privileges) should be fine. Maybe some of them will have to look a few rows above or behind their seat to find space, but that problem exists already.

  6. Agreed w/John H…Gary, I and I think “we” on this site generally agree with your astute analysis, but you’re just not going to win us over on this one. The “finite resource” of OHB space has already, in the vast majority of times, been addressed w/the BE scourge.

  7. BTW I do think your title would be accurate IF those on BE tickets could pay the $9 to carry on their bag…but they are exempt from this option.

  8. By the way Unitrd still gate checks plenty of bags — and more importantly calls for tge need to gate check in advance of boarding — even with the advent of BE fares.

  9. I get why you make this argument, but end of the day I’m guessing most of your readers don’t see it the same way.

    I detest UA as much as anyone (even as a 1KMM) but this is not a bag fee.

  10. I think it’s *interesting* that they unveiled this new option a few months after Ryanair announced that you would have to buy priority boarding in order to bring your carry-on onboard (or they will gate check it for free if you don’t purchase). Priority boarding on Ryanair runs between $5-10.

    I understand it’s not exactly the same (yet) in that UA isn’t saying “buy it or check it”, but I think it’s a suspiciously similar premise.

  11. I do not understand why the airlines do not do a better job of enforcing maximum carry on bag sizes. Some people bring on giant rollered bags and an extra large carry on tote. I think that every passenger should be able to expect their fair share of overhead bin space.
    The real issue is people taking up more than their fair share of space.

  12. It’s not a bag fee. Officially. Unofficially, United knows and is clearly intending this as pseudo bag fee. If it has nothing to do with bags, there’s no reason to market this as access to overhead bin space earlier. United is marketing this as access to overhead bin space earlier knowing people will bite. Ergo, pseudo-bag fee.

  13. Just another nail in the coffin of actually frequently flying United and caring about status.

    So let’s add $9 peeps to the credit card holders and treat them as well as people who qualify for Premier Gold …


    I’m taking my premium flight money and flying whatever airline gives me the best seat with the best boarding. Sucks for United that that might be Delta One or American Airlines business class, Turkish Business, Emirates, etc.

  14. Only Southwest got it right: bags in the hold, where they don’t slow down boarding and deplaning, and thusly an aircraft turn, fly free. It’s the carry-ons that should be charged, as it’s business people who value having their belongings with them in the cabin, and the current setup is extremely expensive (I was told that an operation like AA, UA or DL require 2 extra airplanes for every 10 minutes added to the schedule for a slow aircraft turn — talk about being costly!).

    I agree with you that this is a fee for carry-ons. And am glad that UA is finally seeing the light and charging for this perk.

  15. P.S. did I mention that “bags fly free” is the most profitable airline in the U.S.? Makes more money for each dollar invested in it than all the others, Spirit included? The two things are casually linked.

  16. I also feel the “bag fee” label is not appropriate. In the era of airlines unbundling every element of the travel experience, this feels completely inevitable. Even if they use early access to bins as a marketing message, it is not a take it or leave it proposition. You pay the fee, you get to board relatively early and have a jump on bin access. If you don’t pay the fee, you may or may not have access to bins, and if you don’t, your bag will be checked with no fee. The only thing that has changed from the current situation is a few more people ahead of you in the queue – at no point were you guaranteed space in the first place and as a non-elite you have to expect that it’s a possibility. No one is being forced to pay a fee for access.

  17. Stan is right. Enforce existing carry on baggage rules and problem is solved. Nothing gets me more steamed than seeing entitled idiots carrying all kinds of stuff on that is not be allowed. Good thing I’m not a flight attendant, or I’d be pissing a lot of people off by pulling a bunch of bags for gate check. Actually one should be posted at the door to do that as they board the plane.

  18. What is really annoying is when they make you check your carry on then there is a lot of empty bin space once you get in the plane. This has happened on a number of recent flights.
    I also see a lot of people bring a carry on and a too large personal item, then put both in the overhead bins so there is nothing at their feet. That’s just selfish, yet all too common.

Comments are closed.