United to restrict carry-on luggage

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Further evidence that no matter how bad that it gets when it comes to air travel, it always could get worse comes to us through United Airlines’ announcement of a reduced-fare class that comes with restrictions attached—the biggest being a limit on the size of carry-on luggage.

United announced its Basic Economy fare, which it says will be offered in “select markets,” although it didn’t say which ones. United says consumers who buy a Basic Economy ticket will pay “the lowest fares to their destination.” United expects the fares to begin early in the first quarter of 2017 for travel in the second quarter of 2017.

In exchange, United Basic Economy passengers won’t be able to receive seat assignments until they check in, they’ll be seated last, and they’ll be limited to one personal item that fits easily under the seat—not in an overhead bin. In other words, standard carry-on luggage is barred. Further, groups have no guarantee that they’ll be seated together, and frequent-flier members will be restricted on their perks. (In-flight service will be the same as it is for other Economy passengers, United says.)

About the “lowest fares” part: That doesn’t necessarily mean that consumers will get a bargain. A few analysts believe that United’s introduction of Basic Economy fares is a smokescreen that will mean that standard Economy fares will increase.

Henry Harteveldt, who is the co-founder of Atmosphere Research Group, which is a travel-industry research company, isn’t so sure. “There is a chance [fares] could be higher; there’s a chance that [fares] could be lower,” he says. “It’s almost impossible to tell how United would choose to price this.”

However, Harteveldt warns price-conscious consumers to be wary of United’s new fare when they shop because of the potential for additional fees as a result of the carry-on restriction. Most of the time, he points out, travelers who are the last to board miss out on the overhead bins and have their carry-on luggage checked at the gate—for free. “The difference is United tells you you can’t bring it on, and [now] it has to be checked,” he says. “Not only will it charge you the $25 but also an additional fee.” (United charges $25 for a regularly checked bag; it made no mention of any additional fees.)

Delta has had a similar fare structure, but it still allows its lowest fare travelers to have a full-size carry-on. Harteveldt says it remains to be seen whether Delta follows United’s lead and what American does. (American has announced that it would introduce a similar low-fare option but hadn’t provided any details at press time.) A lot depends on what happens with United’s program, particularly with respect to how on-time performance is affected by what Harteveldt calls the airline’s “need to police the gate with Basic Economy” travelers who try to carry on a bag that’s larger than what they’re allowed.