United offers baggage/upgraded seating subscriptions

United Airlines white chocolate

On Monday United Airlines announced subscription programs offering customers either a year-long access to seats with extra legroom in the Economy Plus section of the cabin, or a year’s worth of pre-paid checked baggage fees.

United says it is the first domestic carrier offering these services in subscription form.

Prices start at $499 for the Economy Plus subscription and $349 for the checked-bag program and go up depending on which region of the world you choose (Continental US or beyond) and how many companions you bring along.

Are the plans a good deal?

Baggage subscription fee

United Airlines passengers flying on an economy ticket within the continental US – and to Hawaii or Alaska – currently pay $25 to check their first standard bag and $35 for the second bag.

With a baggage subscription, a traveler pays a yearly fee of $349 (plus a $50 initiation fee; currently waived). Travelers may add a second checked bag to the package for a $50 yearly fee, the bags of one companion for $100 and the bags of up to eight companions on the same reservation for $300.

The subscription only covers bag fees in the continental United States, so someone flying to Hawaii or Alaska would need to add on the North America/Central America option for an addition $100. Adding additional regions will rack up additional fees.

“With this program, a traveler would need to check a standard bag on 14 one-way, continental US flights before they broke even on their investment,” said Tim Winship, publisher of FrequentFlier.com. “That’s 7 round-trips. And if you are traveling that often it’s going to be true for most people that they’ll earn elite status in United’s frequent flier program, which already includes bag fee waivers as one of the perks.”

Economy Plus Subscription

Travelers purchasing an economy class seat on United can upgrade to Economy Plus at the time of purchase, if those seats are available. “The prices of those seats vary,” said May, “It can start at $9 and go up to $215.”

The Economy Plus subscription package starts at $499 (the $50 initiation fee is currently waived) and includes automatic upgrades to Economy Plus seats – when available – in the continental United States only. To add Alaska and Hawaii, a traveler would need the North America/Central America upgrade, for $100. Adding a companion to the package costs $200 and adding up to eight companions on the same reservation is $400.

Finding the value tipping point on this option “is a bit of a quandary,” said Winship. “I used a figure of $40 for a domestic flight upgrade. And using that figure it turns out that it would take 13 flights before that subscription price gets covered.”

“If you’re flying that much you may want to consider elite status on another airline that gives you these seats for free,” said Brian Kelly, founder of thepointsguy.com.

He can see some of United’s Premier Silver elite members buying this package because, due to a recent change in United’s frequent flier program, that group must now wait until check-in to claim their complimentary Economy Plus seat.

“Otherwise, casual travelers should probably just buy the one time passes,” said Kelly.

Overall, “I find the subscription plans puzzling,” said Winship. “Presumably the market for this is the traveler between the infrequent leisure traveler and the elite traveler. But the cynical way of looking at it would be that the targets for these subscriptions are gullible travelers who don’t really understand the value proposition here.”

(My story: United offers baggage/upgraded seating subscriptions first appeared on NBC News.com Travel in a slightly different version.)

Southwest fliers can board early – for a $40 fee




Southwest Airlines, known for open seating and boarding passengers in bunches, announced this week that fliers can buy a priority spot in boarding group “A” for $40 per flight.

Southwest will put unsold slots in the A1-15 boarding group up for sale, when available, at the gate beginning 45 minutes before departure. Passengers will then be able to use a credit card to buy an early boarding spot. The airline tested the program in San Diego in December and received positive feedback.

“We have continued to look for ways to increase revenues in challenging economic times by offering optional services for which there are optional service charges,” said Southwest spokesperson Brad Hawkins. “These are not punitive against other customers.”

Southwest “has arrived late to the airline industry’s ancillary revenue gouge-fest” with the $40 per-segment access “to its otherwise signature ‘cattle car’ boarding process,” said airline industry analyst Bob Mann of R.W. Mann & Company.

The boarding option may not be a good fit for some passengers. “In many markets a customer would be better off buying up in the fare structure to Business Select, which also conveys in-flight amenities and extra Rapid Rewards frequent flier credit,” Mann said.

“This just confirms my decision to avoid Southwest,” said author and education technology consultant Susan Brooks-Young, who logs more than 150,000 miles in the air each year. She said she’s never been thrilled with Southwest’s policy of unassigned seating, but chose to fly with the airline when it was the best price and because they don’t charge for checked luggage. “Now that they are tacking on fees just like everyone else, there’s no reason for me to ever book with them,” she said.

Southwest passengers already have a few options for ensuring they’re among the first on the plane. They can pay $10 each way for EarlyBird Check-In and get a boarding group assignment 24 hours before other passengers, or they may purchase a Business Select fare which guarantees a spot in the A1-15 boarding group and some additional perks.

While “monetizing” the boarding process has become an airline-industry standard, Southwest’s new  option may serve to “dramatically increase the amount of gaming that takes place among travelers,” especially those who might have purchased the higher cost Business Select fares anyway, said Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst with Hudson Crossing.

It also may be a sign that what Hawkins refers to as Southwest’s “crusade against nickel and diming our customers” may be waning.

In order to generate new revenue, Southwest “has limited options and is stuck with what they can do,” said Harteveldt.

He thinks the airline might next explore charging passengers for checking a second bag and securing an assigned seat in certain rows.

“Southwest’s days of advertising itself as a fee–free airline are over.”

(My story: Southwest fliers can board early – for a $40 fee first appeared on NBC News Travel)


New airline fees for the new year


While a winter storm caused many airlines to issue travel change fee waivers this week, there are several new fees scheduled to take place in the new year. Here’s a sampling:

*United Airlines is raising the membership rates for the United Club. According to a notice on the United website:

“Effective January 1, 2013, United Club annual membership rates will increase by $25 and membership-with-spouse rates will increase by up to $100. Additionally, the three-year membership options will be discontinued. Current three-year memberships will be honored through their existing membership period.”

Beginning on January 15, 2013:

Alaska Airlines will no longer check bags through to a final destination when separate tickets are presented at check-in. This policy change affects passengers who start travel on Alaska Airlines, but continue on a separately purchased ticket on another airline. Alaska will continue to check bags for passengers traveling on a single ticket and connecting to one of our 59 interline airline partners.

Southwest Airlines has also rolled out some new fees for the new year:

The airline plans to begin charging a “no-show” fee to passengers who fail to cancel restricted ticket reservations and it has already raised baggage fees:

“Effective for tickets purchased on or after December 15, 2012, for travel on or after February 13, 2013, the 3rd checked bag and any bag thereafter is $75 per piece and the overweight and oversize baggage fee is $75 per piece. Large media camera equipment is $75 per item, and sporting equipment is $0-$75 per item.”

Before the change, the first and second checked bags were free and charge for the third (through the ninth) checked bag was $50. The overweight bag charge was also $50 and there was no charge for large media camera equipment. The fee for sporting equipment was $0-$50 per item.

Bag fees on Southwest subsidiary Air Tran have also gone up:

“1st and 2nd Checked Bag Fee
Effective for tickets purchased on or after December 15, 2012, for travel on or after February 13, 2013, first checked bag fee is $25 and second checked bag fee is $35 when bag fees apply.

Excess Baggage Fee
Effective for tickets purchased on or after December 15, 2012, for travel on or after February 13, 2013, the 3rd checked bag and any bag thereafter is $75 per piece.

Oversize and Overweight Baggage Fee
Effective for tickets purchased on or after December 15, 2012, for travel on or after February 13, 2013, overweight and oversize baggage fee is $75.”

No doubt there’s more to come….so start saving your pennies.

Spirit Airlines ups the ante: will charge $100 for carry-on bags

Spirit Airlines is being really mean-spirited now.

On Monday the airline announced that, beginning on November 6, passengers who wait until they get to the boarding gate to pay the airline’s fee for checking a piece of luggage or carrying it onto the airplane will pay $100 per bag.

Passengers can pay lower luggage fees by paying earlier in the process, such as online , on the phone or at an airline kiosk. but there’s no way around paying something to carry-on or check a piece of luggage.

Spirit is the airline that advertises really low fares but often surprises unsuspecting customers with hefty added fees for everything from seat assignments to onb0ard drinks.  Beginning October 31, 2012, the airline will also begin charging a $2 fee for printing a boarding pass at an airline kiosk. (Since January there’s been a $5 fee to have a boarding pass printed by an agent at the airport.)

Spirit claims that separating out these – and a plethora of other fees – “empowers customers to save money on air travel.” You decide.

Here’s the new chart of fees for baggage

For now passengers flying on a Spirit Airlines flight are not charged a fee for taking aboard one personal item that fits under the seat.

Tidbits for travelers: airfare tax holiday (sort of) & fresh airport art

A little bit of this and that for a summer Monday:

Tax holiday on airline tickets – sort of

The U.S. government’s failure to reauthorize the budget for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), means that domestic airlines can’t charge some federal excise taxes on flights until the issue is worked out.

For a while there over the weekend, it looked like travelers would be getting a holiday from several taxes (the 7.5% tax on domestic transportation, the $3.70 domestic segment tax and the $16.30 international arrival/departure tax), but it turned out only some airlines, including Alaska Airlines, Spirit Airlines (surprise!) and Virgin America are passing along the savings.


The other airlines? They raised their bases fares so that, in many cases, anyone seeking to buy a ticket would pay what they would have before the FAA shutdown.



If you’re traveling through John Wayne Airport in Orange County, CA before September 12, 2011, look for paintings by Steve Metzger on the departure (upper) level near the security screening areas and on the arrival (lower) level near baggage carousels 1 and 4.

Courtesy Steve Metzger

A professor at Fullerton College and the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, Metzger’s paintings from photos depict “metaphoric icons of the passage of time.” Here’s a link to more images from the Metzger exhibition.

And, on Thursday, July 28, 2011, passengers at Philadelphia International Airport will be able to watch woodworker Roosevelt Bassett turn discarded wood lathe into purses and hats.

Part of the airport’s series of artist demonstrations, Bassett will be at work from 11:30 a.m. until 1:30 p.m. in the Terminal B-C Food Court.

If you’re not passing through the PHL on Thursday, don’t worry. There’s an exhibition of Bassett’s wood handbags in Terminal B.