The state of basic economy fares, or what The Economist calls the “class below economy,” just keeps getting worse. Initially, Delta Air Lines created basic economy as a tool to strip down fares and compete against low cost carriers like Frontier and Spirit. But since the bare bones tickets have spread to American and United, the fares seem to be taking on a mind of their own.
According to a report on The Points Guy, passengers booked in basic economy on United Airlines and not bringing luggage are now finding that they can’t use online check-in to pick up a boarding pass before flight. Instead, travelers in the cabin are directed to see an agent or visit a kiosk at the airport.
“Travelers who purchase Basic Economy and have indicated that they’re not bringing a checked bag need to see a United representative,” says a notification reported by a Points Guy reader attempting to check in for a flight.
A statement obtained from United Airlines further elaborates:
Customers with Basic Economy tickets will be allowed to complete their check-in online only if they qualify for a full-sized carry-on bag or acknowledge that they are checking a bag and pay the checked bag service charge. If they do not qualify for a carry-on bag or do not acknowledge that they are checking a bag, they will not be able to complete the check-in process online. Instead, they will need to speak with a United representative in the airport lobby to complete check-in, so the representative can verify that the traveler does not have a full-sized carry-on bag.
That constraint is apparently targeted at preventing basic economy passengers from sneaking carry on bags on to a flight — for that there’s a fee — but it also presents a problem for both passengers and the airline. On the passenger side, online check-in is an important tool for quickly picking up a boarding pass and skipping the busy land side of the airport — especially when time is tight. Removing the potential of waiting in line for a boarding pass allows passengers to budget time better and potentially get to the airport later, ultimately saving time for everyone involved.
For airlines, too, online check-in makes a great deal of sense. Each passenger visit to the land side of the terminal requires staff and creates congestion, two things that airlines hate managing. Online check-in also allows the airline to better-pitch ancillary services such as upgrades or paid seat assignments, which an airport ticket agent may not have time to process.
Curiously, toying with online check-in has already been done by low cost carriers, though usually there is a fee for not checking in online. Ryanair, the Dublin-based low cost carrier prolific around Europe, actually used to charge a fee for checking in at the airport. Since that carrier has taken a more consumer-friendly approach though, that fee has been slashed. Spirit Airlines, as well, charges a $10 fee for picking up a boarding pass at the airport, effectively encouraging passengers to check in online.
In funneling basic economy passengers through check-in desks, United may effectively be creating an inconvenience for both passengers and ground crews — all to make sure that its fees are collected. If that process creates revenue for the airline though, it may overlook the airport lines.