We're about to praise United Airlines. If you'd rather not read this, skip down a few paragraphs.
We've seen all sorts of airlines institute all sorts of fees in recent months, triggering a range of reactions from applause to guffaws. Most of these fees are examples of simple unbundling: taking a service that was formerly included at no cost (such as checked-baggage service) and making it an optional service available for a fee.
This annoys some people, notably those who are accustomed to checking bags at no additional charge. To them, it's merely a fare increase. And if you're physically challenged in any way (or just a bad packer), dragging your bags onboard might not be an option. You feel you have no recourse.
Somewhat surprisingly, it is United, not widely known as an airline with a big heart, that has come up with an interesting program that can soften the blow.
As part of its Travel Options program, United is now offering a service called Premier Baggage, which enables travelers to take two checked bags on an unlimited number of United and United Express flights for a full year for an upfront fee of $249.
It can pay for itself in as few as five trips, or less if you're traveling with up to eight others on the same confirmation number. That makes it especially attractive for families and small groups.
What sets this apart from most other fees is the value proposition -- i.e., it has one. Most baggage fees don't give the appearance of value, because free checked-baggage service, or a memory of it, is still widespread. For most travelers, the fee is a reminder that they're paying more for something that was formerly included. As long as that memory lingers, there's not much of an upside to paying a baggage fee.
On the other hand, a program such as United's Premier Baggage can offer travelers the opportunity to stretch their dollar and get more for their money. They get a chance to beat the system.
True, there is a big upside for United. The airline gets cash upfront, and it stands to gain if the users don't take too many trips or check too many bags. It also benefits if the program induces participants to choose United more often. But at least there's something on the passenger's side of the ledger that isn't there with a plain-vanilla baggage fee. It's not a lot, but it's something.
United, therefore, earns qualified kudos.
Our praise is qualified because United, being an airline with a confused sense of itself, stubbornly refuses to apply this kind of logic to other aspects of its operation.
We're thinking specifically in terms of its relationship with travel agents, 28 of whom have been told that they're losing access to United's credit card merchant accounts for reasons that remain mysterious.
United has given these agents even fewer attractive options than it has given its bag-checking passengers.
Putting credit card charges on United's merchant account has been an integral part of being an accredited agent for decades.
The withdrawal of that privilege, like the withdrawal of free checked-baggage service, has no upside for the affected agents, and United has shown no inclination to acknowledge that or discuss it.
It's as if United randomly pulled passengers aside at the check-in counter and said, "You get to check your bags for free, but you don't."
Not even a mean ol' U.S. legacy airline would pull a stunt like that, would it?