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United Shortens Airport Lines, for a Price

Industry analysts call it ancillary revenue optimization. The traveling public calls it nickel-and-diming. By whatever name, the industry trend toward charging extra for every conceivable aspect of the travel experience continues at a torrid pace. The latest, from United, is Premier Line.

United has bundled together three special airport services—priority check-in, security clearance, and boarding—given the package a catchy name, and put it up for sale as an extra-cost option.

Premier Line raises two questions.

First, is it worth paying extra for the benefits?

The fee, starting at $25 each way, buys the airport perks at 14 airports (Boston, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New York La Guardia, Newark, Orange County, Portland, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, Washington Dulles, and Washington National).

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Assuming you're flying from one of the participating airports, access to Premier check-in lines only makes sense if you're checking bags, and don't plan to use the curbside option. But getting to the security checkpoint faster, via a shorter line, can save a half hour or more during peak times at congested airports. And while boarding early in the process won't get you a better seat, it will give you a chance to find space for your bag in the overhead bin before the storage space is filled to overflowing.

So yes, there's potentially a savings in time, and definitely a decrease in aggravation.

Second, there's the issue of Premier Line's degrading the benefits already enjoyed by elite members of United's Mileage Plus program. Only so many passengers can be processed through the special check-in, security, and boarding lines. United reassures us that "the sale of the Premier Line travel option is limited on a per hour basis to minimize the impact on current wait times for priority services." But then there's this: "Conditions at airports may vary, and wait times are impacted by numerous factors and are not guaranteed."

The reality is that, to the extent that Premier Line lengthens the existing priority lines by opening them up to non-elite flyers, elite members will inevitably experience an erosion of their airport benefits.

United has already chipped away at the value of elite status in their program, by selling access to Economy Plus, a block of coach seats with extra legroom previously reserved exclusively for elite members.

Premier Line looks to be a decent deal for non-elite travelers, especially if they're flying from airports with particularly congested security lines. For United's elite customers, the impact of Premier Line will depend on how many non-elites opt to buy the service, and how United manages the availability of the airport perks.

In short, you may get fair value for your money, if you purchase Premier Line expeditiously. But you may be getting that value at someone else's expense.

Is Premier Line worth the extra cost to you? Use the Reader Comment section below to weigh in with your thoughts.

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