United has created a new flying class that’s even worse than economy

United we sit.
United we sit.
Image: Reuters/Louis Nastro
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Air travel is reaching new lows.

United Airlines on Nov. 15 unveiled its newest option for flyers: basic economy. It’s hardly the first airline to offer passengers a no-frills option, airlines’ answer to discount carriers. Delta Air Lines has a basic economy class and rival American Airlines is planning to fly basic economy seats next year.

At the same time, Delta and American are launching premium economy classes (United says its studying the possibility), an effort to segment the coach cabin into even smaller groups and milk revenue from passengers as fares languish at the lowest levels since 2009. United and Delta this year also announced that they’re souping up the front of the plane, a bid to attract more high-paying customers.

With these “basic” options, it’s understood that for a low fare, passengers will have to give up some perks they may have taken for granted, such as choosing their own seats, as is the case with Delta’s basic economy product. But United’s president, Scott Kirby, told investors, compared with Delta, “We’ve taken it a little further.”

Here’s a summary of the deprivations that United’s basic economy passengers will experience:

  • No overhead bin space for you. Passengers can bring a briefcase or small personal item, but it must fit under the seat in front of them. The bins are going to be saved ”for our economy passengers, who value that and who are willing to pay for it,” said United’s chief commercial officer Julia Haywood.
  • No upgrades. Passengers cannot upgrade to United’s Economy Plus or first class.
  • Board last. Boarding group 5 it is—though perhaps that doesn’t matter if you can’t compete with others for overhead bin space anyhow. United says this will smooth the boarding process.

Of course for some of us, paying the lowest possible fare is the priority—and after all, everyone does land at the same time. And there are worse indignities that passengers might be willing to submit to for a cheaper ticket. Here are some of our ideas:

  • You must help other passengers stack their luggage in the overhead bins you can’t use.
  • Only middle seats, between two parents, each carrying a crying baby, with a stomach virus.
  • Your seat will not recline, but the seat of the guy in front of you will.
  • Passengers seated next to basic economy passengers are encouraged to bring a tuna sandwich on board.
  • No booze for you. Unlimited booze for everyone sitting near you.
  • Pop quiz on the safety demonstration.
  • No peanuts.