A Conversation With A Passenger Who Unknowingly Had A Basic Economy Ticket On United

We just returned from our trip to Chicago where our outbound flight was on United. I wrote not long ago about how when purchasing the ticket I paid the ransom the extra $15 for the right to choose our seats and bring on a roll-aboard carry on bag. I booked us an aisle seat and a window seat, leaving an open middle seat. I often do this, hoping that we’ll end up on a flight that will be partially empty and no one would willingly pick a middle seat. At worst, we offer the person with the middle seat the aisle or window (they are usually thrilled to be out of the middle seat anyway and we’ve never had anyone refuse).


As a reminder, this is how United describes a Basic Economy ticket (bold for emphasis):

  • Seat selection and upgrades are not available – When you choose a Basic Economy ticket, your seat will be automatically assigned prior to boarding, and you won’t be able to change your seat once it’s been assigned. You will not be eligible to purchase Economy Plus® seating or receive Economy Plus subscription benefits. MileagePlus members, including Premier® members, cannot use complimentary, earned or mileage upgrades.
  • Group and family seating is not available – Please note that customers traveling in a group, including families, will not be able to sit together.
  • Full-sized carry-on bags are not permitted – You’re not allowed a full-sized carry-on bag unless you’re a MileagePlus Premier member or companion traveling on the same reservation, the primary cardmember of a qualifying MileagePlus credit card or a Star Alliance™ Gold member. Everyone else who brings a full-sized carry-on bag to the gate will be required to check their bag and pay the applicable checked bag fee plus a $25 gate handling charge.
  • One personal item is allowed – You are allowed one small personal item that fits under the seat in front of you, such as a shoulder bag, purse, laptop bag or other item that is 9 inches x 10 inches x 17 inches (22 cm x 25 cm x 43 cm) or less. Mobility aids and other assistive devices are also permitted.
  • Flight changes and refunds are not allowed – Ticket changes are not allowed with Basic Economy, including advance and same-day changes. Refunds are not allowed except as stated in the United 24-hour flexible booking policy.
  • Certain MileagePlus and Premier member benefits are not available – If you’re a MileagePlus member, you will still earn award miles based on the fare and your MileagePlus status. However, MileagePlus members will not earn Premier qualifying credit or lifetime miles or toward the four-segment minimum, and they won’t receive some benefits. See more details below.
  • Last boarding group – With Basic Economy, you’ll also be in the last boarding group unless you’re a MileagePlus Premier member or companion traveling on the same reservation, the primary cardmember of a qualifying MileagePlus credit card or a Star Alliance Gold member.

Since I used my MileagePlus Explorer credit card to purchase the tickets, we were able to board with Group 2. When we boarded, we noticed that there was already a woman in her 60’s standing by the middle seat in our row. We also noticed that there was a young child, no older than 5, kneeling on the middle seat of the row in front of us and another young child by herself in the middle seat across the aisle.

When we got to our row, we asked if the woman would like to have the aisle seat and we would take the window and middle. She gladly accepted and said that she hoped that she could now trade that seat for the aisle seat in the row in front of us so she could sit next to her granddaughter, who was the 4 or 5-year-old child in the middle seat of the row in front of us.

We had time while the plane was boarding so I chatted with her for a bit. I asked if she had purchased basic economy tickets and she said that her daughter had bought them and apparently had purchased in basic economy. Note that her daughter was assigned a seat ten rows back, with her other child. I explained how we paid the extra money so we could pick our seats. She replied that she would have gladly paid extra because, not only was her family spread throughout the plane, but she also had to pay to check her carry on bag because it was too large to fit under the seat in front of her.

Now, I was not talking to someone who reads a travel blog and keeps up on the different types of tickets now sold by airlines. This was a family of occasional leisure travelers who were paying for five tickets to fly to Chicago from Orlando. For choosing United and not knowing about the restrictions of basic economy, they were split up (including all of the  [too young to be seating alone] children in different middle seats around the plane), charged extra for all of their carry on baggage and had to beg fellow travelers to let them sit together as a family.

The passenger seated next to us and her family weren’t feeling that the skies were very friendly on United this day

Now, unlike other stories on United, this one had a happier ending because the other passengers on the plane were not totally heartless. The passenger in the aisle seat in the row in front of us moved back and a passenger traded for the middle seat of the other side so grandma could sit next to the two children for the flight.

Might I add, not only would it be traumatic for a five year old to be sitting separated from his or her family for the entire flight, but I would imagine but the two other passengers would feel somewhat uncomfortable with someone else’s unattended child sitting next to them for a whole flight. I don’t know who at United thinks this would ever be a good idea. It should not be left up to the good nature and common sense of the other passengers to figure out seating arrangements for families with young children.

I’m sure some people will say the family could have just bought up to regular economy seats and they could have avoided this problem. I could see that if you were talking about an airline who markets itself as no frills, which United does not (have you not seen the ads for Polaris First Class seats plastered all over O’Hare airport). This was a family of five and to purchase basic economy tickets would have cost around $150 extra round trip. Not an insignificant price difference.

I took a great deal of insight away from my conversation. This was a everyday, infrequent traveler and someone that a frequent flyer who gets upgraded to economy plus or first class might not see very often. The look of anxiety on her face and of the kids was difficult to ignore. You could only feel for them and it didn’t matter if this could have been avoided or not. They should have never been put in this situation in the first place. Even Southwest allows parents to board with young children earlier to make sure they have a chance to sit together.

Final Takeaway: United’s Basic Economy fares are either knowingly or unknowingly making travel difficult for those who aren’t familiar with the system. They show no willingness to help cause if they did, this wouldn’t be their policy:

“When you choose a Basic Economy ticket, your seat will be automatically assigned prior to boarding, and you won’t be able to change your seat once it’s been assigned.”

In effect, that’s not true. It should say:

You won’t be able to change your seat once it’s been assigned but we’ll leave it up to your fellow passengers to not be a bunch of jerks and let’s hope they will let you sit next to the rest of your family because they don’t want to end up playing babysitter for the whole flight.

Have you ever had a situation like this on a flight? What happened? Did everything work out in the end? Did the airline employees help (they did not help at all on our flight)?

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