And so it begins: Basic economy fare comes with overhead bin fee

11/30/2016
Airlines have already been charging more for the space below deck, namely the baggage hold as fewer airlines permit free checked luggage. The space within and around the seats in coach class can carry a fee as well if you want the space between rows to be bigger too. But what about the space above your head? Yes, that too is now up for sale and we're not talking about a budget carrier this time. 

The mad scramble to board in economy class has more to do with being able to fit your carry-on luggage than being among the first to sit. One major U.S. airline has introduced a bare-bones basic fare in economy that comes complete with, well, nothing – not even guaranteed space overhead. That is, unless you pay for it. People who book United's basic coach fares can expect to pay more to have the space above them available for hand luggage, though not exclusively. "Overhead space is shared space", we often hear flight attendants announce. For the budget traveler boarding a flight with only a small carry-on that will fit under the seat in front, this might be your fare option. This is pretty much how it works on airlines like Spirit Airlines and Ryanair. The smaller carry-on goes with the small seat bought for a small price. For everything else, you have to pay up – even for a carry-on bag destined for the overhead bin. 

United Airlines is not the only major full-service carrier that has dipped its wing tip into the budget airline pool to lure travelers flying on the cheap. The airline, along with American and Delta have all announced a basic fare offering that barely comes with a seat – especially since you can't reserve it until check-in time. People who purchase these basic fares cannot reserve seats in advance, and cannot accrue miles. Now, with overhead space in the pay-for-play mode, larger carriers see an opportunity to cash in on one of the most anxiety-inducing parts of boarding a flight in coach – finding space for your carry-on luggage. 

The space crunch in the overhead bins has a lot to do with the fact that airlines began charging for checked luggage several years ago. Passengers decided that they could save the cost of checking bags by bringing more on board with them. The challenge now with the basic economy fare concept will be managing the "who paid for what?" scenario. If overhead space is to be shared, how will someone who paid for the space above be guaranteed the room? Just how much room will that be? Families who want to save on the fare might wind up being split apart because of the lack of advanced seating, not to mention the overhead bin space conundrum. Airlines are challenged to enforce carry-on rules in the first place. We know this because some passengers pass through with questionable items while others are flagged just before boarding with a comment like: "I'm sorry sir, but you'll have to check that bag because all the bins are full." 

The airlines sometimes can't get out of their own way in the quest for profits. Enticing passengers with cheap fares is fine. Asking them to pay for a system that is not consistently enforced and open to confusion and frustration might actually cause passengers to look elsewhere. Hopefully they have studied this well, especially the unintended consequences. Is it merely a different way to charge for carry-on bags without saying they do? Time will tell.