When United Airlines wants to test a new product, it looks to where people follow the rules: Minnesota.
The Chicago-based airline, which soon will launch its no-frills basic economy fares, chose Minneapolis-St. Paul as a test market in part because Minnesotans will do what they’re told — even if it means squishing a carry-on under a seat rather than in an overhead bin.
Basic economy is a new term used by the three major U.S. airlines to describe their cheapest type of airfare. Modeled after low-cost carrier leaders like Spirit and Allegiant airlines, the fares cost less but come with a host of restrictions and are stripped of many amenities like preselected seats. With all these caveats, airlines are counting on the customers to listen carefully and abide by the instructions.
Delta Air Lines, the dominant carrier at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, already offers a basic economy fare, but United takes it one step further.
United will forbid basic economy ticket holders from using overhead bins and plans to enforce the rule before passengers reach the gate.
The airline will start selling these tickets on flights between Minneapolis and its seven U.S. hubs in February or March for service beginning sometime in late spring or early summer, Scott Kirby, United’s president, announced last week. He offered a list of economic reasons for testing the fares out on the Twin Cities routes.
Contacted for details, United spokesman Jonathan Guerin added one more reason: “It’s a really good market for customers who comply with carry-on bag rules.”
He said an internal study at United found MSP passengers were better than travelers in most markets at adopting new rules, even those that are unpopular.
This Minnesotan trait can be traced to the immigrant groups who settled here, particularly those from Scandinavian countries like Sweden and Norway, said Roger McKnight, professor emeritus of Scandinavian studies at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter.
“The Scandinavian peoples have always placed a huge emphasis on the communal and collective well-being,” he said.
Historically, those nations enacted strong laws focused on the group’s well-being. This translated into respect for the law and, ultimately, created a population of rule-followers.
“Much of that thinking has come to Minnesota,” McKnight said. “Scandinavians tend to view American self-assertion ... as essentially adolescent behavior on the part of adult citizenry.”
In 2014, United first tested its two-step self-tagging system at its MSP ticket counters before rolling it out elsewhere. About the same time, the airline tested a new electronic scanner used by baggage handlers on the tarmac at Minneapolis-St. Paul.
“We have a great team there [at MSP]. We’ve had some history with us of rolling out new products,” Kirby said, adding they want to “make sure everything works, then we’ll roll it out to the rest of the domestic system.”
United’s presence at the Twin Cities airport is relatively small, operating less than 5 percent of MSP’s total traffic.
But the airline does offer about 30 daily flights between MSP and all of United’s hubs, giving its busiest airports — and most loyal customers — some exposure to the product before it’s implemented systemwide.
“The market is also somewhat familiar with the basic economy product and has seen those fares before,” Guerin said. Spirit Airlines is synonymous with no-frills airfare and has steadily grown its footprint at Minneapolis-St. Paul, increasing its market share by about 3 percent in the past five years.
“Introducing [these fares] is just another way we can compete with a major carrier, but also other low-cost carriers in the market,” Guerin said.
American Airlines also recently announced plans to roll out its version of basic economy in 10 markets over the next few months, but it declined to say what cities are included on that list.