Southwest doesn’t charge for seat assignments because they don’t offer advance seat assignments. First board, first pick of seats. You can board earlier if you check in online as close to 24 hours before your flight as possible, if you have elite status, or if you buy a full fare ticket. Or you can pay $15 per flight for ‘Early Bird’ check-in. Southwest earns 9 figures annually from passengers opting into this.
Boarding early ensures both you get a better seat and that there’s room onboard for your carry on, although since Southwest doesn’t charge for checked bags more people check and there’s less competition for bin space.
United and American don’t allow customers on the cheapest (basic economy) fares to bring a full-sized carry on bag onboard, unless they have elite status or the airline’s co-brand credit card. Seat assignments for these passengers come at a charge prior to check-in. Other passengers without status pay to be assigned to many seats.
But now United has figured out a way to make customers who aren’t buying basic economy fares pay to be able to bring a full-sized carry on bag on the plane.
They’re selling priority boarding from $9. That’s a fee to ensure there’s overhead bin space available when you get on the plane, which is the only reason you want to board early.
The fee will vary “depending on several factors, including the flight booked, the date, time of day, and day of week.”
It won’t be available on all flights or to Basic Economy customers and United assures “We do not anticipate any significant impact on the current boarding group size.”
Elite customers and those with United’s credit card get early boarding anyway. And to be sure United has long sold Priority Access ‘bundles’ — packages priced perhaps at $80.
Now that there’s a $9 choice just to board earlier, in order to take your carry on bag on the plane and not have to gate check it, that becomes the default position — non-elites, pay up when offered or United may require you to gate check your bag (at no charge).
On flights where some passengers have to gate check bags it won’t be those who pay extra to board early and queue up in group two. It will be those who don’t pay the $9.