I’ve seen many enraged notes from friends on how United Airlines will now charge for putting a bag in the overhead bin. While they aren’t actually doing this, my reaction is not outrage, but actually something quite positive. And yours should be to, even when other airlines follow suit, as they will.
I fly too much on United. I have had their 1K status for several years, this year I logged over 200,000 miles, so I know all the things to dislike about the airline. Why is it good for them to do this?
Strictly speaking, what they are doing is creating a new fare class, which is extra discount, and it includes no bin space and no assigned seat before departure. They claim the new class will cost less than existing fares, and you can still buy the regular economy fare which comes which bin space and a seat assignment. Naturally, we can suspect they will soon raise the price. The other reason people can complain is that when you comparison shop, you tend to look for the cheapest price, and it’s annoying when the products are not similar. (To fix this, shopping sites will need to start having options so you can ask for a comparison of what you really want to buy.)
The reason it’s good is that it means it’s more likely that I will get bin space when I show up late, and more likely I will get a tolerable seat when I book late. Airlines that give those things to all passengers, even the ones who don’t care that much about them, do not serve their more frequent flyers well. If I have to pay for seat assignment and bin space, it’s great, because I truly need them and will not have a better chance of getting them. Of course, as a super-elite, I won’t have to pay directly, I pay by all the other money I have given the airline, which is even better for me.
I need bin space because I am a photographer who carries a lot of cameras and lenses. Even if I check a bag, I still bring along a big carry-on, and everything in it is too fragile to go in the hold. If they tell me they need to gate check it, I will either talk them out of it, or if that ever fails to work I may take another flight. Of course, elite flyers board first, so we don’t have a bin space problem, but sometimes we need to get to a flight late, or have a short connection, and then we can find ourselves with no bin space today.
I won’t take a middle seat because I’m big. My fault or not, it’s the way it is. Sometimes I need to book last minute, or change flights or even go standby. This can mean a flight with nothing but middle seats. If it’s a flight of any duration, this is also just not an option anybody wants. Since in today’s system, everybody gets a seat based on when they bought, the guy with the discount ticket who bought 3 months ago has the aisle, and the elite flyer who paid a lot more for their ticket (possibly even downgraded from business class due to changes) is in the middle seat. Not the way you want to serve your better customers. (Since the airline will assign seats on day of flight, it will only help this moderately.)
But the point is the same — I would rather pay for what I really need than have it come by default and end up not being available to me because a lot of people didn’t actually want it that much. People who don’t need a big carry-on. People who are small and can tolerate a middle seat easily and would rather do that than pay money. An airline that charges for these things is the airline I want. In fact, I would even be OK if they charged a bit more for aisles and less for windows and middles, even on the day of the flight. And yes, elites sometimes solve all these problems with a business class upgrade, but on the big popular routes, that is far from certain. United has gotten too good at filling its planes, and other airlines are also getting good.
The overhead bag problem is partly a result of the charges for checked bags. Those do me no good (though again, elites don’t pay them.) There is no shortage of hold space, so charging for bags is just pure money for the airline, and that’s why they all started doing it. The problem, of course, is it makes people carry bigger carry-on bags, not for the reason that I or other frequent flyers do, but because they want to avoid the bag charge. I would be very pleased if they made sure the overhead charge is larger than the checked bag charge, or if they charged you to gave you the choice — either an overhead space or a bag in the hold, but not both.
There is another good reason for this — bigger overhead bags from those doing it simply to avoid charges slow down security lines. Leave the overhead bins for those who truly need them, because they have lots of fragiles, or because they value their time more than money and don’t want the delays of bag checking. (I continue to show up for flights quite late, another reason I don’t want to check a bag and be forced to meet the deadlines for that. But I notice I am almost always alone — everybody else listens to the crazy advice about showing up 60, 90 or even 120 minutes before flights. I’m glad everybody else listens; but in reality this has not caused me to miss flights, so I will continue to not listen. And if you fly enough, that time makes a big difference.
In the end, all airlines face the problem that on full planes, there is not enough room for everybody to put a big bag in the overhead bins. So the only question is who it will be that get the space? Today, it’s “who boarded first?” which is tolerable to many (until you have a late connection or other factors make you on time but later than others.) United now wants to make it “Those who didn’t give up the space for a discount” which seems pretty fair to me.
I am curious as to just how they will enforce this. I know some airlines tag cabin baggage, does this actually work? Passengers not using the overhead bin also do not stand in the aisle loading it, though they do often stand there pulling things out of the bag they will be putting under the seat. One way to enforce would be to have the no-bin folks board last, though it causes a problem when people together have different boarding groups. Some airlines, I think, give you tags for overhead bags and under-seat bags.
So while I don’t usually like how United does it, this one’s an exception. (Their new business class redesign also looks good, if long overdue.)