United Should Have Thought Through Paid Basic Economy Seat Assignments Before Launching


I continue to beat my head against the wall as I watch the legacy carriers find new ways to screw up implementing Basic Economy. This shouldn’t be all that hard. There should be a low level fare that includes nothing. Call it Basic Economy if you want. Then people should be able to add on the pieces that they want. If they buy it as a bundle, call that something crazy like “Economy,” they should save money over buying the pieces individually. If they choose to buy a la carte, then airlines should alert people if the bundle would save them money. Seems like the customer-friendly way to handle it, right? Of course, that’s not how it works with the legacy carriers. And today, United gets my wrath for how it has implemented selling seat assignments on Basic Economy fares in a customer-unfriendly way.

The whole problem with the Basic Economy premise as it stands is that it has no flexibility for customers to change their minds after purchase. If they wanted to add seat assignments later, they should have been able to do that even if it’s at a high cost. Refusing to take someone’s money when they want to pay you is not a smart way to run a business. So you’d think I’d be cheering this announcement that United will allow travelers to pay for seat assignments. I am… but as always, it’s the implementation that’s flawed. Buying a ticket on United is a mine field that becomes worse with every tweak.

For now, it appears United is making the seat assignment pricing for Basic Economy simple. You can pay $5 for a middle, $10 for a window, or $15 for an aisle on each flight in your reservation. I’m sure that will change over time as the airlines get more sophisticated with pricing, but one problem will remain. There are plenty of scenarios where customers will end up paying more than if they just bought a regular Economy ticket, and United won’t tell them that. To understand this better, let’s book a roundtrip ticket from LA to San Francisco on June 13 returning June 20 using united.com.

First we pull up flights. United is now showing pricing as roundtrip, so we get something looking like this.

That’s Basic Economy on the left followed by regular Economy, flexible Economy, and lowest First Class. I’ve seen some examples where Basic Economy is a higher price than regular Economy, and that’s just weird. (If you buy Basic Economy in that case, you should be smacked.) But in this case, it’ll cost us $20 more to buy regular Economy than Basic. Fine. I want Basic, so once I click on the $150 price, it pops up a warning.

I get all the details, and then I have to actually check the box saying I’m ok with Basic Economy before then clicking the Basic Economy button to reserve it. That’s already a lot of hoops, and despite others suggesting that this is hate-selling, I don’t mind it. It makes it very clear. The problem begins now, however, because that’s not where it ends. There are further warnings on additional pages. Here’s one saying what I already knew, and it gives me the opportunity to buy up for $20.

Now things are starting to get hazy. I’ve already been fed a ton of information about what comes with each fare, and now these different warnings are just too much. I start glazing over and try desperately to just find the button that allows me to move forward with my plan. Soon I find myself staring at a seat map, and this is where I think things get interesting. It’s one thing to read warning after warning on the screen, but it’s another thing when it comes to actually making a decision. I have a seat map in front of me and it becomes more real.

I’ve already gone through so many hoops and become so confused, but now I have this additional choice to make. Should I just purchase the seat assignment? It may not have seemed like something I wanted to do before, but now seeing the seat map in front of me, I decide to do it. But guess what? It’s now more expensive than it would have been to just buy a regular Economy fare that includes the seat. United loves giving me warnings, so does it tell me that here? No. Instead, I just buy Basic Economy and pay $10 more to get less.

How often will this happen? I have no idea, especially since I’m sure seat pricing will begin to vary more over time. But the point is this. United has made the purchase process incredibly complex, and now I can’t even be sure I’m getting the best deal for what I want. This feels a lot like how the airlines have always done things. They come up with an idea, implement it, and then try to work backwards to fit it into their processes in the worst way possible. The end result is a confusing mess.

I know it’s easy to criticize, but this time I come with solutions, two to be exact.

  1. Cut down on the Basic Economy warnings. There are just too many now. That one pop-up is plenty, and then just stop. The more warnings there are, the less I pay attention.
  2. If I select seats and the cost is higher than the regular Economy bundled fare, then there should be a pop-up telling me to switch. This’ll do:
  3. I should add that there’s nothing wrong with showing a seat map with these prices AFTER the initial ticket purchase. In that case, people have been given options and they knew adding seats would cost more later. If they decide at the time they want to save $20 by booking Basic Economy, and then only later do they decide they want seat assignments, then by all means charge more than it would have cost during the initial purchase. That only makes sense. But the way it is now? United should be doing much better than this messy experience.

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63 comments on “United Should Have Thought Through Paid Basic Economy Seat Assignments Before Launching

  1. I get the overall point of the post, but in the actual example you give, it seems like you’re paying less for Basic Economy ($150) plus a seat assignment chosen during booking (+$15 = $165) than you would have for Economy ($170). Am I missing something?

    1. It’s a roundtrip ticket, but the seat assignment charge will be for one flight. So $15 going up and another $15 coming back. If you only did seat assignment for one direction, then you are correct and it would be $165.

    2. Since the seat is $15 per flight, and the $150 is referring to a roundtrip purchase, I believe Brett is calculating that the seat assignments would actually be $30, making the total $180.

      However, if you happened to only want a seat assignment in one direction you could save $5 with the basic economy fare as you suggested.

      Poor implementation in these situations, but this will definitely be a nice feature to have when the price gap to economy is much larger… might make basic economy a more feasible option for me in the future.

  2. I like the concept of Basic Economy and the ability to add features a la carte. However, for the vast majority of the travelling public (read: those who fly a handful of times a year or fewer, mostly for leisure), Basic Economy only adds to the confusion, and thus the hate towards airlines (as people will blame airlines when they screw things up or overpay, regardless of whether or not it was their fault for not reading and understanding the terms as to what’s included at each fare class).

    From a user experience, graphic design, and process design standpoint, trying to simplify this process as much as possible is a challenge, and one that I would love to see some alternative attempts at solving.

    1. Real problem lies in the way OTAs will present this fare diffrence and wether or not they’ll even provide access to the economy class booking code !

      1. That’s true. OTAs don’t necessarily have the ability to present all available fares. Airlines control which fares are available to various channels, so this may be an airline site only fare.

      2. Agreed, and Brett has discussed the challenge that Basic Economy poses to OTAs in this space before. With OTAs especially, I can see how the low BE fares may appear to infrequent travelers as a bait and switch or drip pricing, after they see the low fare on a site, and then feel the need to purchase extras, if they even realize that they need to do so before arriving at the airport.

  3. It becomes more and more obvious that the whole idea of basic economy fares is to influence buyers while they’re cruising the web in their initial search. People who bother to do their research will know that regular fares are probably a better deal, but a sucker in a hurry for a bargain won’t figure that out. Assuming there’s a sucker born every minute, that’s 525,600 new basic economy customers born every year. What I’m trying NOT to say is that basic economy fares could be argued to be a deceptive practice.

    1. I’m not sure I agree with Brett on this one. Basic economy is a system to make legacy airlines show up more on the Google, Kayak, etc. airfare searches. They are playing the same game as the ULCC’s. How many people booked a flight on Spirit for bargain basement prices to only find out that after all the fees they could’ve been on AA/DL/UA for the same fare? Clearly it’s not Spirits job to tell them they’ve been had, so why should UA do any different? You don’t do your homework and shop price alone means you might get burned. Pay up for those extras a la carte and shame on you for not reading the details.

      Personally I hate basic economy fares because #1, I refuse to buy that fare class so #2, searching for airfare deals has become more time intensive for me.

  4. If there are too many warnings already then “do the math, dummy” on the seats page only complicates things. Remember: United does want to sell this product, it helps solve gatechecked bag problems.

  5. Your premise that Untied actually cares about it’s passengers is flawed: United does not really care about their passengers. Their business is based on the fact that they are trying to monopolize airports so flyers have no choice. When it comes to passenger choice, United will never win.

  6. This is done on purpose and it’s called drip pricing. It’s usually banned due to its obvious social costs, but airlines are regulated by the DOT. It prays on the staggeringly high number of Americans with low numeracy to charge them more money.

  7. While your scenario is interesting and certainly illustrates the United boondoggle, you omitted another head-slapper. Who would make a seven day trip anywhere, with no included checked bag and no carry on? A vacationer to a nudist camp?

    I am trying to figure out exactly who could actually benefit from the fare situation you laid out. This flyer, to really save any money, has to be traveling without any checked baggage or carry-on, not caring where they sit, or expecting to be hungry or thirsty. That seems to limit it to someone making a short day trip for a job interview on their own dime.

    I agree with you that this is a ploy to prey on travelers who don’t bother to really stop and figure out the exact cost of their trip. My niece is a wiser consumer after buying a “cheap” ticket on Spirit to come for a visit. After adding up all the nickle and diming, she realized she would have been better off with a less basic fare on a carrier with a better schedule. United, and the ULCC airlines, seem to betting most people will never stop to do the math.

    1. Aren’t the checked bag fees the same for basic and regular checked bags? So if you’re traveling with checked bag(s) but only bringing a personal item on board and don’t care about seat assignments, elite status, or changes, you would come out ahead with basic.

      1. If you check it at the check-in counter it costs the same as it would normally. If you bring it to the gate there’s an additional gate handling charge for Basic Economy checked bags. I think this is to discourage people from trying to sneak it on.

    2. 1. There are many people who will fly somewhere for a weekend trip if the price is right. Thanks to Spirit/Frontier/Basic Economy, it often is now. For a weekend trip, a backpack is more than enough.
      2. UA and AA’s Basic Economy fares aren’t a flat rate buy-up like DL’s. They often vary with route, advance purchase, etc. I’ve seen AA and UA charging upwards of $150 for the buy-up. At that price you could buy the Basic Economy ticket, a checked bag, and seat assignments at UA’s new prices, and still pay less than the Economy fare.

    3. If you have houses in two places because you commute routinely for work. If you have clothes in the other place because it’s your parent’s/boyfriend’s/sister’s/vacation house. If you are a person that travels the world and packs REALLY light – I know two of these people and they handwash one of their two sets of clothes every night, living out of a backpack that would be tough for me to squeeze my stuff into for 2 days.

      Or you could be like us. Family of 4, traveling to a warm place for 6 days. We can share ONE checked suitcase ($60 round trip) and each have our small backpack under the seat for electronics and toiletries. The Frontier fare was $98 round-trip per person vs. $205 per person on United (the cheapest legacy for this itinerary). We don’t need 4 full-size carry-ons, though we would have had 2 or 3 on United instead of paying to check something. It’s a short flight (~2.5 hours) and I honestly find my kids behave better when seated next to strangers (LOL) so I don’t much care where we sit. I don’t care if they feed me at 6 am. Just get us there safely.

      I do DESPISE Frontier and had to join their $49/year “den” club to get that fare. However, even factoring that membership in, which I may or may not use again in the year it covers, this arrangement cost $300 less for the 4 of us. We are flying for fun this time so if we’re a little late, it doesn’t matter. Eh. I will note that the ticket purchasing experience made me swear, gnash my teeth, and I almost bailed out twice. Even with all the deceptive add-ons, it remained much cheaper than United. I hope I don’t regret these arrangements and it made me miss my beloved Alaska terribly.

  8. Keep it Simple and distinct. In my opinion the basic product on all airlines should be a seat, a seat belt, computer selected seat assignment at check-in, and the beverage service offered to everyone else. The product differentiation gets muddy when à la carte options are offered and perks for BE are included with loyalty status and credit cards. It’s not going to happen with the competitive environment of legacy’s trying to match, yet differentiate from, the ULCC’s.

    Off topic – I observed the one under seat bag policy for AA’s Basic Economy Group 9 was strictly enforced at the gate on my last flight. There were a lot of frustrated passengers checking bags at the gate.

    1. Was AA charging Basic Economy pax to gate check those bags?

      Glancing at their web site, it appears that they charge a $25 “gate service fee”, in addition to the $25+ checked bag fee for domestic flights. Ouch. I guess that’s one way to help offset the costs of potentially delaying a departure due to all the BE pax gate checking bags.

      1. I didn’t hear the dollar amount, but I did see credit cards passed across the counter. The gate agents made multiple announcements that Basic Economy customers in Group 9 with more than 1 bag needed to come to the counter to check their extra bag(s). Basic Economy allows 1 under-seat bag. I saw several small bags being checked.

        1. Interesting. Given that people were paying for gate checked bags, I assume that they got hit for the full $50 ($25 + $25). That hurts, especially on small bags and cheap fares, though that is what happens when pax don’t do their homework to fully understand what they are booking.

          Kudos to the gate agents for making the announcements before boarding started in an effort to speed up that process. I’m sure the gate agents must hate having to do that, and must get a lot of flak for it.

  9. Cranky, Did I read this correctly-First is actually cheaper than one of the Economy fares?!?!
    If that’s the case free booze here I come!

    1. It’s showing lowest First, which probably has a change fee and/or is nonrefundable. That’s cheaper than the full fare, refundable economy. As airlines increasingly monetize the front cabin, it’s now quite common to see restricted first class tickets which are cheaper than unrestricted refundable coach.

  10. How about the industry standardizing what the dimensions are for an under seat bag. Lots of confusion out there!
    Thx, Stan

  11. I still can’t figure out why anyone wants to buy a Basic Economy fare. You have no control and they are way too restrictive. But, then again, it seems like people will sacrifice any sense of control or comfort to save a few bucks. If they could come up with an option for people to fly as cargo to save even more money, some would gladly sign up.

    1. Basic economy fares help keep fares low across the industry. Last year I was a student living in one state with a dying father in another state. Flying basic economy fares, with my weekend stuff jammed in one under the seat bag, allowed me to stay enrolled and spend more time with my father before he passed away. So yeah, some people will sacrifice control and comfort to save a few bucks. When I earn more, I’ll gladly pay more for a better arrangement.

    2. Bcause if you’re absolutely positive you’ll be in that plane, whatever the price you pay, you’ll end up leaving and arriving at the same time and in the same kind of seats than if you had paid a more expensive fare. And for short range flights, if I can save a few bucks, it pays for parking next to the terminal rather than in a remote parking (and that really saves time) and/or coffee while waiting for the plane !

  12. Well. That’s the whole point. The next time you decide to buy ‘Basic Economy’, you will take 3.5 minutes to think over that pop-up warning and possibly switch to Economy than to go down a path of no return. I don’t think Basic Economy by Legacy carriers is a downgrade (or an un-bundled product) that airlines want to sell and are very happy to then offer you a discount because the bundled product is cheaper. They do not want you to buy it. If you still decide to, there is no incentive for the airline to offer you a cheaper Economy fare mid way through the process. In effect you end up paying more than $170 and get less than Economy, which is good revenue for the airline. The next time you buy, you will prefer ‘Economy’. (Now, you may not go with the same airline because you’re ticked off, but what choice do you have. And if you want to be the cheapest flyer with horrible yields, I’m sure United would say, ‘No Thanks!’.)

  13. Here’s another puzzling twist I encountered with their pricing. I bought the basic economy seat, but since I have a Mileageplus Explorer card, I am allowed one free checked bag. I asked if I could just carry the bag on board, and was told no, basic economy does not allow a carry-on. I had the then check the small carry-on and wait for it at my destination.

      1. I did point out that language and the gate agent said it meant that I could check the bag for free, but could not carry it on with a basic economy ticket.

  14. actually, I think this may be a glitch.

    Something tells me that United is going to start charging for seat assignments for *all* fares, and well, this was just implemented a hair early. That’s when I think it makes sense. I was even shocked to look at buying a premium economy ticket on British Airways – $1200 roundtrip to Europe – not cheap by any means – to find out I can’t select a seat until checkin. >_< And no option to buy a slightly higher Premium economy fare to allow me to select a seat.

    1. I really hope not. I had to fly LHR-DXB last year and I wanted to fly in W (prem economy). My two choices were BA and QF. BA wouldn’t allow me to choose a seat and QF did. I flew QF. I didn’t want to chance a center seat.

    2. The difference is that with UA’s Basic Economy you can’t change the seat at all. With the apparently now standard European model, you just need to remember to check in as early as possible and you’ll normally be fine.

      Interestingly, Easyjet doesn’t allow you to change the seat at you decided not to pay for a seat choice. I would have expected them to have implemented an approach a la “Here is your middle seat, feel free to change it for three times the initial fee.”

  15. The simple cure for this problem is to get a United Mileage Plus Club credit card for $99 per year. You get 2 MP Club passes annually, free first checked bag for you and those on your same reservation, priority boarding and double points. What a deal! Pay for a seat if you really want to choose, but UAL will assign you a seat without charge when checking in or possibly at the baggage counter. If you are in a group and there are seats together, you’ll be seated together. It’s worked twice for me.

    1. That’s great if you’re in a United (or any) fortress hub but for those of us lucky to have choices (three airports and multiple airlines), we certainly aren’t going to get the credit cards for each airline.

  16. Yeah, I’m actually fine with the ala-carte model… most of the time. I don’t check a bag for most domestic short trips, so if the airlines are willing to charge me less, then hey. I also like the ability to buy any seat in the coach cabin that I want. In the old days, if you weren’t elite or full fare, you weren’t sitting in the exit row.

    But… the legacies are screwing the pooch with this. Most of my air travel is actually overseas — Air Asia, Easy Jet, and Ryan Air and me are all friends. You know what you get when you buy the base fare – nada. And then they helpfully sell you bundles. Honestly? I like the bundles. I buy them most of the time. But I know when I see a low price ticket on one of these guys, that I should add a bunch of $ to get to the final price. The LCC’s are up front and in your face with the charges. You can’t buy a ticket and not know what you’re not getting. When the legacies rolled this out, they buried all of the extra fees, so you actually don’t know how much you are going to need to pay until the bitter end.

    The danger with the legacy model is that if they show up with a higher fare, I expect that fare to be all inclusive. When my choice is “cheap fare, do the math” and “expensive fare, do the math”, um it’s cheap fare. Quite frankly, if I look at a legacy fare that’s anything more than marginally more expensive, and find out there’s so much as one extra fee, I bail and go the LCC route.

    The sad reality is that economy travel is a commodity product. For anything under 2 hours, people can (and will) put up with all kinds of misery for a cheap fare. I’m a big dude, and I’m happy to buy my way out of purgatory… on long flights (particularly overseas ones) I almost always pay the asking price. But for those sub-2 hour flights? Price matters, and I’ll suck it up if the buy-up price isn’t negligible.

    1. As a fellow “big dude”, I wholeheartedly agree with your last paragraph. 2ish hour flights, not a problem, I won’t even consider paying more for additional room, though if the price is right (say, $15 or less, give or take) I might pay to select a window seat. For longer flights, yes, I’ll often drop the money to have more room, and at the very least will drop the money to select a window seat.

  17. To hell with all of the nickel-and-dime nonsense. Southwest’s cattle call boarding is better than this. UA is WN’s best friend.

    1. In leisure trips the past 2-3 years I have often booked away from WN, as their price was not price competitive with UA, DL, etc, even comparing WN to traditional (non-basic) economy fares on other airlines, and especially comparing the fare features that I generally want and don’t want.

      A “free” checked bag is nice if you are going to check a bag anyway, but I can get by with a rollerboard carryon bag and a backpack for 95+% of my trips (anything 9 days or less), so that feature of WN adds no real value to me. Selecting my seat at booking is worth far more to me than being able to check bags etc, especially on longer flights.

      I do like to see some different business and pricing models at work in the marketplace, however, as it keeps things interesting and helps spur innovation.

  18. They probably want the customer to get so confused that they drop all the hoop hopping and book a higher fare just to get a ticket….its like reading an add for a cheap fare and then has all these restrictions denoted with an asterisk….$199 round trip*……
    *blah blah blah *blah blah blah….etc, and you need a magnifying glass to read it all….
    I think its pencil pushers that have no airline experience making all this up

  19. I love cheap fares, but I want to know what I buying before I buy it. We are getting closer to when all seats, to anywhere, will be priced as: “$1, additional fees and add-on’s apply.” And then, Congress will demand some re-regulatory scheme making everything even worse!

  20. I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve been in a conference room with wild-eyed executives who can’t wait to press the button on a new ancillary service prior to doing any analysis or process design on it. I would say that some sort of business process consultation was missing in this decision. Before an implementation like this happens, the airline should put as many potential scenarios on the table as possible and iron out the kinks.
    On the other hand, they may well have done their due diligence and outlined potential scenarios, knowing that this pricing anomaly existed and then made the conscious decision to execute it. This could be for a few reasons; the technological hurdles could have been insurmountable or too expensive OR maybe they felt that giving the customer multiple opportunities in the booking flow was enough and if they got to the seat map and were silly enough to buy the more expensive seat assignment, it’s 100% the customer’s fault.
    As airline services get more and more complex, they’re going to either have to invest in more business process consulting (internal or external) or invest in smarter technologies such as AI.

    1. Eh, it’s not Alitalia or Aerolineas Argentinas. Tough for US airlines to “win” that august award from Cranky these days.

  21. They should go talk with Frontier. Frontier lays everything right out in front of you. How United manages to say in business is beyond me. Lately it seems like it’s one dumpster fire after another over there.

  22. I suspect one of the reasons for all the warnings is to hopefully head off the many difficulties Basic Economy has caused for airport customer service employees. Families, especially with children, have become a major problem at boarding time. It appears that some families bought the lower fare firguring they would just sort seats out at the airport gate. Little do they know that with load factors so high that is now often impossible with the fare they purchased. Many, who can see empty seats on their phones, just say, “Well put me in Economy Plus” on United, or whatever the more space seats are called on other carriers. When the answers is no, the convesration just goes down hill.

  23. Regulators don’t like it when customers are tricked. Having a pop up to move them back to the (in the end) cheaper economy fare is an easy fix.

  24. Why should the airline inform you that you can save money? They want you to spend as much as possible. It’s like going to McDonald’s and ordering items a la carte when a meal would have been the same thing for less money. If you don’t do your research and look at the prices, you lose.

    1. It’s more like going to McDonald’s and ordering items a la carte when a meal would have been the same thing for less money and the employee behind the counter not saying anything. Which, actually in my experience most employees say something. Repeat business is more likely to occur when the employee is helpful and forthright before the transaction versus the customer finding out after the fact and is unhappy with their experience and willing to spend more time at Burger King.

    2. Jim – I’ll agree with what’s already been said. You want to do what’s right for the customer, and that means informing them of a better deal.
      The airline sets the pricing structure, and it should help travelers to get the best deal within what’s been created. If they don’t like it, then they shouldn’t have created it that way. But refusing to help the customer find the best price within what’s been set up is just not a good way to run a business.

  25. … of course this grabs the punter’s attention on line – but it is all so ridiculous – what a mess … the ultra bureaucratic EU could not have made a bigger farce than this if they tried – nul points to corporate airline mgt for confecting layer after layer of arbitrary charges – with the primary purpose of grabbing first-glance attention on line, and then increasing the actual fare step by step …

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