United Airlines Announces Charges for Overhead Bin Use Just as It Rolls Out New Perks for Wealthy Travelers


United Airlines will soon start charging some customers for overhead bin use as part of its "new tier" ticket called Basic Economy, which allows passengers to bring one small carry-on item on board, but charges a fee ($25 for the first checked bag) for anything that needs to be stored in a bin.

United insists this is all being rolled out in the name of freedom and choice.

“United’s customers have told us that they want more choice and Basic Economy delivers just that," said United’s chief commercial officer Julia Haywood, "By offering low fares while also offering the experience of traveling on our outstanding network, with a variety of onboard amenities and great customer service, we are giving our customers an additional travel option from what United offers today."

The Los Angeles Times' Michael Hiltzik insists that this is little more than deceptive spin.

"Unless United offers a significant discount for the basic economy fare, this is a price increase," writes Hiltzik, "The new fare will become the benchmark, and today’s economy fare is almost certainly destined to rise."

To Hiltzik's point, the policy is expected to rake in more than $1 billion for United by 2020.

Customers aren't the only ones upset about the new rules. New York Senator Chuck Schumer is calling on United to drop the carry-on policy. "Air travelers are sick and tired of being nickel-and-dimed for every bag they carry and every morsel they eat by airlines that are already making sky-high profits,” Schumer said, "Already, airlines charge extra for checked luggage, pillows, peanuts, and headphones and now you’ll have nowhere to store them."

At Gizmodo, Matt Novak wonders about the seemingly unlimited future of such fees:

What do you suppose will be next? A fee for your jacket? A fee to have someplace to put your feet? If you’d told me a decade ago that an airline would start charging for use of the overhead bins, I don’t think I would’ve believed you. So there’s really no new airline fee that would surprise me at this point?

United made another policy shift around the same time as the carry-on fee announcement, but it received far less attention. On December 1, United rolled out its new Polaris Business Class for international travelers. This is a new tier as well, but on the opposite end of Basic Economy. 

“It is about the entire experience,” United CEO Oscar Munoz told the Associated Press. “It’s not just a new seat. It’s not just new meals. It’s not just better wines.”

What else is it? Business travelers are getting more room because the airline is removing the middle seats from their premium cabins. The VIPs will also get Do Not Disturb signs and more storage space.

The travel site Skift breaks down the shift, and sheds light on some of the additional perks:

Even with items as simple as the recently changed economy class cocktail napkin, United has used old and new versions simultaneously. It has done the same for business class amenity kits, switching over time, rather than at once. That means less waste, and it also ensures it’s not a disaster if new items fail to reach caterers in Beijing or Hamburg by a specific day.

But that’s not the case with United’s new Polaris Business Class... Every flight departing after 12:01 a.m. local time needed new napkins, silverware, plates, stemware, table cloths, food menus, blankets and mattress pads, and lots of other items passengers might not notice. The longest flights required slippers and pajamas, too.

United overhauled its food, as well. United claims it created 96 new appetizers, 48 new salads, and 240 new entrees...

United is also launching airport lounges for Polaris customers; the first one just opened at Chicago's O'Hare airport. Writers and bloggers were given access to the lounge, which includes multi-course meals, wine lockers, spa-like showers, and daybeds. The lounge menu was created by Oprah Winfrey's former chef Art Smith. USA Today notes that, "The menu includes a wide variety of small portion dishes as well as Smith’s signature fried chicken, shrimp and grits, and Hummingbird Cake."

“To be frank, United was falling behind our competitors' offering in terms of luxury business class experience,” said United spokesperson Maria Walter. “We knew we needed to completely transform our business class offering. So instead of just doing what we thought our customers would like, we conducted over 12,000 hours of research and created a dynamic dialog with our best customers to create this experience."

Indeed, it seems two class offerings are being transformed.

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