On what ended up being our last flight on United, we were flying home from Chicago. I wrote 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 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’ll be partially empty and no one would willingly pick a middle seat. At worst, we always offer the person with the middle seat the aisle or window (they’re 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):
- Complimentary seat selection and upgrades are not available – When you choose a Basic Economy ticket, your complimentary seat will be automatically assigned prior to boarding, and you won’t be able to change your seat once it’s been assigned. Advance seat assignments may be available for purchase during booking and up until check-in opens. 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.
- Please note that customers traveling in a group, including families, will not be able to sit together unless advance seat assignments are purchased and seats are available.
- Full-sized carry-on bags are not permitted on select routes – On trans-Atlantic flights, your carry-on baggage allowance is the same as for standard Economy tickets. For all other Basic Economy tickets, 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. With Basic Economy, you’ll only be able to check in for your flight through united.com or the United app if you indicate that you’re checking a bag. To check your bag, you’ll go to a check-in counter or designated kiosk in the airport lobby. If you begin check-in and do not indicate that you’re checking a bag, you’ll need to finish checking in for your flight at the airport.
- 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, as well as full Premier qualifying points, lifetime miles and credit toward the four-segment minimum. However, Basic Economy flights do not count as Premier qualifying flights. 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.
The big change United has made since this story is the ability to buy seat assignments before check-in. I’m still SMH that United didn’t allow this from the beginning. However, it was always their plan that people wouldn’t actually book a Basic Economy ticket and would willingly pay the extra for a regular ticket.
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. She said that her daughter had bought the tickets and apparently purchased ones 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 for economy tickets 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.
I was obviously not talking to someone who reads a travel blog and keeps up on the different types of tickets sold by airlines. This was a family of leisure travelers who paid 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.
This story has a happy ending because 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 the two other passengers would feel somewhat uncomfortable with someone else’s unattended child sitting next to them for a whole trip. 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 seat assignments and they could have avoided this problem. I could see that if you were talking about an airline that markets itself as no-frills, like Spirit or Frontier, which United does not. This was a family of five, and to purchase economy tickets would cost around $150 extra round trip. Not an insignificant price difference.
I took a great deal of insight away from my conversation. This was an infrequent traveler, someone who a frequent flyer that gets upgraded to economy plus or first class might only give an occasional glance at as they walk to the back of the plane. The look of anxiety on her face and of the kids as we got to our row was impossible 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 still either knowingly or unknowingly making travel difficult for those who aren’t familiar with the system. United is showing 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 and we’re leaving 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.
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This post first appeared on Your Mileage May Vary