United Airlines has selected the name “Basic Economy” for its newest fare class, and the moniker couldn’t be more of an understatement.
The fares, unveiled last week and available for purchase starting in January, promise to be lower than the airline’s standard ticket prices, but prohibit passengers from bringing carry-on luggage (beyond a small personal item), pre-selecting seats, and boarding in any group other than the last one. What’s more, if you’re flying with others and you choose the basic option, you can be separated from your companions—even if they’re kids. Another blow: Miles flown on basic tickets don’t count toward elite status.
In other words, all you get with a “basic” ticket is a seat and the foot space under the seat in front of you. Period. And if you want some of these privileges, you have to pay for them.
What prompted this new offering? According to a story in the New York Times, the lower fares are an attempt by United to compete with budget airlines such as Spirit Airlines, Frontier Airlines, and Allegiant Air, all of which offer bare-bones fares but add fees to otherwise standard options like carrying on bags and printing boarding passes.
The same story notes that United is not the only one of the major airlines to go this route. Delta Air Lines offers a basic economy fare that assigns a seat after the passenger checks in, but has no additional limits on carry-on baggage.
American Airlines said it would begin offering “no-frills” fares in 2017 but has not offered specifics.
A story on the Huffington Post indicated that United expects the new fare to add $4.8 billion to its annual operating income by 2020, although the figure does not include rising wages.
Another benefit that airline executives have touted: faster boarding, since at least some passengers on every flight will no longer need to stop and lift carry-on bags into overhead bins.
Here at AFAR, we’re willing to see how the whole saga plays out. In the varied travel industry, budget options almost always are good for the marketplace—especially for younger travelers who might not have much money on reserve.
Matt Villano is a freelance writer and editor based in Healdsburg, California. In nearly 20 years as a full-time freelancer, he has covered travel for publications including TIME, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Sunset, Backpacker, Entrepreneur, and more. He contributes to the Expedia Viewfinder blog and writes a monthly food column for Islands magazine. Villano also serves on the board of the Family Travel Association and blogs about family travel at Wandering Pod. Learn more about him at Whalehead.com.