United Airlines’ New Squeeze Play

United Airlines has made it clear that it doesn’t have much room for me on its planes. Now it doesn’t have much room for my luggage, either.

After reading about the airline’s new $25 fee for checking a second bag on domestic flights, I kind of have to figure that United Airlines figures it’s worth the money to further alienate a certain segment of the flying public – the segment I’m in.

Look, I’m no business genius or airline industry analyst. I don’t know if this fee is going to help United or not. But I know that as an economy class, leisure traveler I’m starting to feel less welcome on United and more inclined to book on other airlines.

I’ve mentioned before my distaste for United’s Economy Plus seating, which results in a consistent 31-inch seat pitch at the back of the plane — unless you pay extra to sit in the front. At 5 foot 9, I’m tall for an American woman but the exact average height of an American man and I can tell you  – that’s not enough room for anyone my size or bigger.

And now, unless an economy class passenger has elite status in United’s frequent flier program, the airline will charge $25 to check a second bag on a domestic flight. So far, the fee does not apply to international flights.

It’s not a surprising development. Some no-frills airlines have fees for all checked luggage. Spirit  Airline recently raised its charges to $10 a bag if you reserve space in advance or $20 at the gate. Skybus charges $5 per bag per flight segment.

There’s already speculation that if United gets away with this, other large airlines will follow suit.

This isn’t a fee that would likely apply to me – I usually travel pretty light. But it can be tough on students returning to school, people who need a lot of medical equipment and others in similar situations.

United’s hope here, clearly, is for some extra revenue. Another result might be that passengers will travel lighter. But I think it most likely that passengers will try even harder to cram all the stuff they can into a carry-on and/or a single checked bag, which would mean even more overstuffed cabins and more back injuries for baggage handlers.

We shall see.


13 thoughts on “United Airlines’ New Squeeze Play

  1. Mark

    I’m almost never one to defend the airlines, particularly United, but I think this baggage fee is a smart move.
    With no end in sight to rising fuel costs, airlines are going to have to try to make up those extra costs any way they can. Instead of adding larger and larger fuel surcharges to fares, I’d much rather have them charge for extra bags, since this way I can fly with one bag and avoid paying more money. If they added larger fuel surcharges, everyone would be subject to higher ticket prices.
    With stricter weight standards imposed by the FAA and more and more flights leaving without all the seats filled because they are weight restricted, it makes perfect sense to give passengers an incentive not to carry as many bags.

  2. j. daly

    What do you expect? Remember THIS is the SAME airline that thought enough of their employees to dump their obligations for retirement benefits!
    UAL’s disregard for stateside travelers is only magnified by their development of the Euro-Asian market!
    Glen Tilton is after all an ex-oil man who could care LESS about service and MORE about what will EXPAND his profits!

  3. Ron Stout

    At one time Uniteds service was so outstanding it forced Western to serve passengers filet mignon and champagne,with orchids for the women and cigars for the men.Their flight attendants were the most svelte and stylish of all carriers “wives in waiting’.Now you’re lucky to get a bag of nuts,crackers,or whatever,served by a low wage drudge worn out from stale air and angry customers.This is what our dollars vote for though.

  4. Joel Vergun

    Okay, if you don’t like having to walk past and envy the travelers in Economy Plus or Business Class, you might choose to fly a so-called “low cost” carrier where every seat is economy. But don’t expect more leg room than on United.
    United’s seat pitch in “economy minus” is unchanged by the creation of Economy Plus. United didn’t squeeze the economy traveler to create more room in “Economy Plus,” they removed a row of seats to provide the extra legroom. The seat pitch in economy is still better than the seat pitch of most low cost carriers, and is comparable with the economy class seat pitch of other major airlines.
    United’s new policy of charging for a second checked bag is not unreasonable, either. Bags add weight, and that costs fuel. And when a plane is “weight limited,” the extra weight of bags reduces the number of passengers, mail, cargo and other payload the plane can carry, thus reducing revenue on the flight. That lost revenue can be made up by charging everyone more, or by only charging those who choose to pack three or more bags — the carry-on and the first checked bag are still free. Some “low cost” carriers charge for even the first checked bag.
    You should expect other carriers who don’t already charge for a second bag to begin to do so. And in the mean time, read the fine print. An oversize or overweight bag — even if it’s the only one — will cost you more on any carrier.

  5. Jeanne Leblanc

    Hi Joel,
    I can at least see the reasoning on the baggage fee, though I still don’t think it makes sense.
    But I don’t think you’re correct about leg room. The 31-inch seat pitch in regular economy class on United is about as bad as it gets – unless you go to the ultra-low-cost airlines like Skybus.
    On 397 of United’s 463 jets, economy class seats have only 31 inches of leg room. This includes 777s, 767s and 747s on long-haul flights. (Sixty-three 737-300s are configured with 32-inch seat pitch in economy class.) See http://www.seatguru.com.
    While the fleets vary on the other five of the Big Six airlines, and some planes in those fleets have only 31 inches of leg room, most have 32 or 33 inches. Southwest has more than 500 737s, with all seats offering 32 or 33 inches of leg room.

  6. Ema K

    Jeanne –
    I spend more time traveling then I do in my office, and with my family. Therefore, to be rewarded with Economy Plus, makes my traveling more enjoyable. If I only traveled once or twice a year like leisure travelers, my desire for legroom would depend on the length of my flight. And, for a flight to Chicago, 31-inches is what you’ll get on most legacy airlines and most other airlines don’t even offer an upgrade to Economy Plus (in fact, I can’t think of anyone except for United that offers this). So to my chagrin, at least United offers upgrades to non frequent fliers and those who pay the cheapo fares. In summary, if extra legroom (and we’re talking 35 and 36 inches) is that important to me, I would pay the $15 bucks for an upgrade.
    Clearly, you have something against United. You know…some airlines charge for headsets. United does not. Some airlines charge for pillows and blankets, United does not.
    Joel is correct, they took a row out of the plane to allocate space for Economy Plus. And, according to their web site, it is working (to Jeanne’s disappointment) in the tune of over $100 million in revenue annually. So, if United — or any airline — can’t make money on cheapo fares in light of these fuel costs, what is wrong with them finding new ways to make money to offset the cheapo fares?
    I also question your sources. I just got off an Airbus 320 (Chicago to Boston), and I did measure (I am a clothing designer) the pitch on United in Economy and it was 32 inches. So, is United feeding the info., to seat guru or are you getting your data from United. I thought reporters were suppose to report accurate facts and be objective?
    Regarding the bags, I would rather the person adding the extra weight (in the form of luggage) to the airplane, pay for the added fuel cost. I don’t want to subsidize that cost in my ticket because I only check one bag.
    Let’s take a vote…who would rather United up their fares to everyone by $25 each way or simply charge that cost to the folks bringing on extra bags. You bet, airlines that want to keep their fares low, will do the same thing.
    If you don’t like it, you can drive and probably pay more in gas, wear/tear on the car, tolls and overnight accomodations, and of course, waste of time.
    This way, the planes will be less full for those of us who spend their life traveling.

  7. Sandra Mamere

    Not being a business genius or an airline industry analyst is not a shortcoming for a writer. It is, however, rather necessary if you want to run or make sense of the airlines.
    The cost of living has quadrupled since the 1980’s but airfares are still the same as they were in the Ice Age. Nothing makes more fiscal sense than raising airfares but the traveling public wanted cheap, they got cheap and then some! But if you think the passengers are the only ones suffering, ask any uniformed airline employee how gleeful they feel as they drive to the airport. Misery is not exclusive to the traveling public. Just ask a new hire flight attendant on food stamps or the retired 70 year old pilot working at a new job the replace his lost pension. Misery is not the exclusive right of the penurious public. There is plenty to go around.

  8. Jeanne Leblanc

    It’s true that other airlines have jets with seats as tight as United’s. But among the Big Six, United consistently has the least leg room for the standard economy fare. So other airlines may squish, but on United it’s a matter of policy and it’s an excuse to extort more money for minimal comfort.
    I don’t have anything against travelers like Ema who prefer to pay for Economy Plus seats. That’s your call. (But I do believe Seat Guru on the seat pitches; it’s always been accurate on aircraft I’ve flown, and I doubt very much United would let an inaccuracy stand.)
    Also, I’m not sure Economy Plus is all that successful a program. Is $100 million really all that much money for a corporation United’s size? I mean, how many executives does that actually pay these days? And how much is United losing when passengers book other airlines that offer more leg room for the same price?
    I do have something against United – it’s crushing my knees. And I’m not alone. United also consistently has the highest rate of complaints from passengers among all domestic airlines. This is clear every month in the government’s Air Travel Consumer Report.
    But, hey, everybody gets to have his or her own opinion. And for everyone who angrily tells me to fly on another airline or drive — that’s my plan.
    (And, btw, I don’t blame the employees.)

  9. gleeless airline employee

    I’m one of those airline employees who drives to work with less glee than I used to just a few years ago, having lost more than 20% of my pay and most of my pension. I’m definitely not drinking the company kool-aid after 20 years of service..but why has it become so acceptable to bash EVERYTHING related to legacy airlines?? I agree that management executives have to accept their part in the discontent so pervasive in the industry.
    But why do some airline customers feel they’re entitled to more than they’ve paid for? The airlines, for the most part, are transporting domestic customers for less than the cost of the product. Sure, you MIGHT be able to find a lower fare on one of the so-called LCC’s..but let’s face it…the legacy carriers are competing well..but who do you think subsidizes your $49 fare?? It’s the employees of those LCC’s. With less benefits and pay than they’re legacy counterparts. As is evidenced by Southwest’s foray into big markets and products they said they wouldn’t offer as a LCC. Southwest is running out of growth and profit opportunities because their business model is LIMITED. Pilots for Jetblue are starting to return to the legacy carriers they used to work for, realizing the grass isn’t so green after all.
    This is a business and the airlines are in it to make money. Stop holding it against them when they succeed. When you patronize any other business, you simply decide if you want to pay for the product. If not, go elsewhere.

  10. J Benzl

    Airline economics being what they are, I am glad that I can protect my knees for an extra $15. I’m an elite flier on another airline, but these days its a lottery to see who gets the big seats up front –otherwise I’m back in coach with my legs afraid of the seat in front. United’s Economy Plus takes the risk out of the equation –its knee protection insurance!

  11. Ema

    Jeanne —
    Exort…c’mon, be real here. That is a serious allegation and if that is the case, you should contact UAL attorneys.
    I agree, UA is not the best when it comes to customer satisfaction.
    You are completely wrong on Economy Plus. If the company thought it was not successful, you think they would still offer it today? And, if you go to Yahoo and read any of the financial analyst reports…they ALL applaud the $100 million that UA made in ANCILLARY revenue (while AA pulled out their “More Room Throughout Coach” program. What in the world does it have to do with executive pay? When your paper charges more, do people blame it on lining your pockets with more money or on the fact that you need to recoup costs lost to the decline in advertising?
    If the airlines can’t make money on fares — because customers want cheap fares, as do I as a business travler — what is wrong with them trying to make money elsewhere.
    If 36 inches of pitch is not worth $15 bucks to you, I guess legroom is not that important afterall. What is $15 bucks on a $150 fare anyway.
    As for their employees, just like any company (or reporter for that matter)…there are good ones and bad ones.
    If you read these comments — or go to our own chat room on FlyerTalk — I guarantee that you are among the lonely in hating Economy Plus.

  12. Jeanne Leblanc

    C’mon Ema. I clearly wasn’t using the word “extort” to mean a criminal act. To extort is to get something using undue force or pressure – and in this case the pressure is being applied directly to my knees.
    I am a member of FlyerTalk and I do realize that some people – including many business travelers – like Economy Plus. You’re welcome to it. I have no problem with anyone making a different choice than mine. And I encourage everyone to express their opinion here. I think reasonable people can – and should – disagree.
    What the $100 million claim has to do with executive pay is simply perspective. It’s not that much money if it amounts to what a few employees can take home in bonuses. And it’s not clear to me that this overall strategy of a divided economy class has helped United all that much. Perhaps United has lost $100 million by sending more customers over to Southwest for the extra leg room without paying the extra $15. Hard to know.
    By the way, this is not reporting. This is a blog. It’s commentary about the news, and this is my opinion about Economy Plus.


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