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New Fees from US Airways Make Sense but United’s Don’t

US Airways loyalists (and I mean the old East loyalists) aren’t going to like what I’m about to say, but I think they’ll probably agree that it’s true. When US Airways announced several new fees and other changes yesterday, it made sense considering that airline’s strategy; however, when United did the same thing, it didn’t.

US Airways fliers have seen this coming for a long time. 08_06_13 usairwaystollIn fact, I’m surprised they can even find the energy to get frustrated anymore. It was clear when America West management took over US Airways that the airline was going to become more like an America West-style product and less like a full service legacy-style product that used to be the norm for the airline.

Benefits have slowly eroded since the takeover, and as far as I’m concerned, the writing has been on the wall since day 1 of the “new” US Airways. Management has made it clear that they want to provide a clean airplane that flies on-time for a low price. That’s about all you can expect. Everything else is just a legacy benefit that seems to me will slowly be stripped away. So with that strategy in mind (whether misguided or not), yesterday’s moves make sense.

This time, the airline adopted American’s $15 fee for a first checked bag, and to be honest, I’m surprised they didn’t think of this first. You’ll also now have to pay $2 for a soda and $7 (up from $5) for alcohol. There will be fees for using a Dividend Miles award, and a bunch of other fees will increase. On top of this, elite members in Dividend Miles will no longer receive bonus miles, and that is bound to have the FlyerTalk crowd up in arms more than anything else.

But is anyone really surprised? I mean, aren’t you just waiting for them to start charging for elite first class upgrades before they remove the first class cabin from the plane completely? The only thing that’s missing here is that while they’ve tried to go bare bones and low fare in some ways, there are still plenty of high fares lurking. I suppose it’s all about supply and demand. If people will pay, then that won’t change, but it doesn’t exactly fit with their persona. Still, the changes announced yesterday fall exactly along the lines of what I’d expect from this airline.

But then there’s United, which also matched the $15 first bag fee yesterday. This is an airline that has long talked about how it likes to be more of a premium carrier, but once again it has shown that it is not really trying for that market. Sure, elite members will be exempt from these fees, but the unwashed masses in the back of the bus will be treated like, well, unwashed masses. It’s a very confusing message, especially when an elite who pays a $100 fare will get treated better than a non-elite who pays $400.

This shows the problem that United is once again trying to serve all different types of passengers when that really shouldn’t be the case. Yes, I understand that they need cash right now and that they’re in worse shape than others due to mismanagement, but if you want to be a premium carrier, you don’t implement fees like this. You try to differentiate yourself instead of helping Southwest establish itself as the true premium carrier that doesn’t actually charge these fees.

In fact, Southwest has been stepping up its “no-fee” campaign lately, and if people are serious about despising fees, they should be voting with their wallets and flying Southwest more often. Maybe then the other airlines will see that there is demand for this type of service. Until then, it will apparently continue to be a race to the bottom.

While there’s certainly plenty of room for airlines at the bottom, I think the further they go, the more opportunity there will be at the top. United would seem to be the airline best-positioned to try that strategy, but it’s clear that won’t be the case. Instead, the airline will set expectations too high and customers will be disappointed time and time again.

[Original image: iandavid at Flickr]

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