United Airlines’ New Policy Blocks Use of Overhead Bins: 5 Fast Facts

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Overhead bins aboard a Sukhoi Superjet 100 offer space for passenger luggage. Credit: Flickr / SuperJet International

Chicago, IllinoisUnited Continental Holdings, Inc., commonly referred to as United Airlines, announced in November that soon it will limit some passengers’ use of overhead bins.

This means that a traveler with even a medium-sized rolling carry-on must either pay for a checked bag or buy an upgraded ticket that allows access to overhead storage? So what does this mean for passengers?

Here are the 5 Fast Facts you should know:

1Access to Overhead Bins Gives Light Travelers an Advantage

Passengers wait in line to check their bags at Halifax International Airport in Canada. Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Robert Alfers

In the early days of air travel, airplanes offered overhead shelves designed for storing soft objects such as hats, scarves, and coats. Passengers began to use these for harder and heavier items such as briefcases, which could fly off the shelves if the plane ran into turbulence or during a bumpy landing, so these shelves evolved into storage compartments with closing doors.

As larger rolling carry-on bags became popular, the bins increased in size. But as competition among passengers for the bins has become keen, storage space has decreased in size, accommodating only small to medium sized carry-on items. Now most airlines have size, weight, and/or number limits for carry-on items. For example, Virgin allows only one carry-on for some flights, while Air Canada allows two but limits the dimensions and weight.

Currently, the maximum carry-on size for American, Delta, and most other air lines is 22 inches tall, 14 inches wide, and 9 inches deep. Light travelers prefer using overhead bins instead of checking bags because they can “grab and go”, bypassing lines to check bags and avoiding carousels in checked-luggage retrieval areas. They also sidestep the costs of checked items, as well as the hassles of lost and damaged baggage.

2United’s New Policy Blocks Access to Overhead Bins for Cheap-Ticket Travelers

Image by Unsplash from Pixabay
People traveling in groups or with family represent a majority of “basic economy” air travelers, and may not always get a chance to sit together. Credit: Pixabay / Unsplash / Creative Commons

United’s new policy offers a cheap “basic economy” ticket that allows passengers to carry on only one small item measuring 9 inches by 10 inches by 17 inches. This item can only be stored below the seat in front of the traveler. Any other luggage must be checked—for a fee. Several other airlines offer a “basic economy” ticket option. For example, Delta’s “basic economy” fare limits a passenger to assigned seating, and a passenger cannot chose his or her own seat.

However, United is the only one that blocks access to overhead bins. Besides restricting access to overhead storage, United’s new “basic economy” ticket also involves automatically assigned seats at check-in. This means that families and others traveling in groups may not be seated together.

3Senator Charles Schumer Is Stridently Objecting to United’s New Policy

U.S. Senator Charles Schumer is a Democrat from New York. Credit: Flickr / Senate Democrats / Creative Commons

United States Senator Charles “Chuck” Schumer, a Democrat from New York, is stridently objecting to United Airline’s new “basic economy” ticket policy, suggesting that the change is essentially a fare increase because passengers wanting overhead bin access will be forced to pay a more expensive airfare. The senator stated,

“Air travelers are sick and tired of being nickel-and-dimed for every bag they carry and every morsel they eat by airlines that are already making sky-high profits”.

Schumer believes the new policy is one of the most restrictive that airline travelers have experienced in years. He said,

“The overhead bin is one of the last sacred conveniences of air travel and the fact that United Airlines—and potentially others—plan to take that convenience away unless you pay up is really troubling”

He continued,

“Already, airlines charge extra for checked luggage, pillows, peanuts, and headphones, and now you’ll have nowhere to store them. United Airlines should reverse this plan and allow the free use of the overhead bin for all”.

This isn’t the first time Schumer has battled airline carry-on policies. In 2015 he urged major carriers to scrap a policy to reduce the size of carry-on luggage for passengers.

4Other Airlines May Follow United Airline’s Lead

Credit: Mike Kelley / AirPortraits

Schumer believes the restricted usage of overhead bins is a lose-lose situation for air travelers. It could also result in changes to other airlines’ policies regarding free use of overhead storage bins. Other airlines are allegedly watching to see if the new policy succeeds before implementing it themselves. United’s new policy may backfire, however, alienating potential passengers who might choose to take their air travel business elsewhere.

Fortune magazine, in an article titled “Why Customers May Not Like United’s New Carry-on Rules” predicted,

“The announcement [which came] on Tuesday [November 15, 2016] could frustrate flyers who already feel burdened with airline travel restrictions and fees”

However, Fortune reported that on the day of the airline’s new policy announcement,

“United’s shares rose as much as 7.6 percent to $67.70 in early trading, their highest in more than a year”

5United Stands to Profit Substantially from the New Policy

"N225UA United Airlines Boeing 777-222(ER) coming in from Chicago (KORD) @ Frankfurt - Rhein-Main International (EDDF) / 08.04.2015" by oliver.holzbauer is licensed under CC BY-SA
Credit: Flickr / Oliver Holzbauer / Creative Commons

Schumer’s office says United will benefit by $1 billion from the new policy by 2020. The increase will come from passengers who either upgrade for overhead bin access, or who pay to check bags. The company’s revenue in 2015 was US$ 37.864 billion. United had 86,000 employees in 2016.

U.S.-owned United Airlines operates a huge domestic and international route network, and has a significant presence in the Asia-Pacific region. It is the world’s largest airline in terms of the number of destinations served. United Airlines is a combination of a number of air carriers that merged with each other starting in the 1930s, the most recent being Continental Airlines.

Watchdog groups see the mergers as detrimental to consumers. Charlie Leocha, chairman of the consumer advocacy group Travelers United, declared,

“This action clearly shows how airline consolidation is eliminating choice,”

He concluded,

“Simply stated, this is an example of airline consolidation gone too far, with choice and transparency being wrung out of the system.”

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