American Airlines began the race to charge checked bag fees. First it was a second checked bag fee, then fee for the first. It became industry standard with Southwest remaining as the outlier.
With passengers charged for checked bags they began carrying more onto the plane. With planes largely full for the past several years there hasn’t been enough bin space to accommodate everyone, leaving the last passengers to board having to gate check their bags usually meaning that they must collect those bags at baggage claim.
Alaska Airlines and now American are installing larger overhead bins to better accommodate passengers. United on the other hand is using the price mechanism to allocate this scarce resource.
Airlines used to let any passenger sit in any seat without an extra charge, but then realized that some seats are more desirable than others — and there are a limited number of those. Customers will pay more money, and anything that resembles a scarce resource they go on to charge for — like bin space.
Seat assignments on a full flight are an easy way to ensure only people who have paid for or are otherwise entitled to a seat are sitting in it. The monitoring costs are low. The passenger whose seat is improperly taken will flag down help. Flight attendants have manifests (and on United frequently don’t let passengers swap seats onboard without a fee).
Overhead bins are a scarce resource that are tougher to monitor on a passenger-by-passenger basis. Yesterday I wrote about United’s new priority boarding fee and called it a carry on bag fee, United’s way of monetizing scarce bin space without incurring high monitoring costs. There was push back.
It’s a Priority boarding fee; not carry on fee. DO NOT LIE !!!!!
— Walter Guderian (@wgzavala) March 11, 2018
Let me explain and see if you agree with me.
Elite frequent flyers, premium cabin customers, and co-brand credit card holders get to board earlier in the queue anyway. Passengers outside of this group who pay their $9 essentially get assured they can move from the group that may have to gate check their bag to the group that won’t. And that leaves passengers not paying the $9 and who would have boarded in front of them gate checking bags.
United even tells you in a barely masked way that this is $9 for overhead bin access.
They’ve long offered a bundle of priority check-in, security, and boarding. For Denver – Austin I’ve seen this at $85. This new $9 unbundled fee will mean many more passengers taking advantage of just access to overhead bins.
Gate checking is free of course and maybe there are some people who don’t mind. That’s called price discrimination, and they’ll save by not paying this fee.
However there’s little to suggest people want to spend more time on the plane squeezed into their coach seat than they have to. It’s important to board early (or rather, not last) to secure access to overhead bin space, and ideally bin space near your seat. United realized people will pay for that.