USA TODAY, Editorial Board
Can air travel get any more miserable than it already is?
The answer is yes. And major airlines are happy to bring you this new experience. United will introduce its “Basic Economy” fare early next year, selling a ticket on certain routes that offers, well, nothing except getting you to wherever you’re going.
Passengers choosing the fare are restricted to a purse and a single personal item — as long as both fit under the seat in front of them. Forget wheeled carry-ons. Fliers on these tickets may use the overhead bin for coats and personal items, but only if space is available when they board. Good luck with that. They’re in the last boarding group.
The seat is assigned after check-in or at the gate, meaning that family or friends aren’t likely to sit together. Ticket changes are not permitted.
Delta was the first to offer basic economy on a handful of flights in 2012, with some slight differences. Carry-ons are not prohibited, but Delta warns that “customers will board last (and) access to overhead bins may be limited.” There are no refunds, so tickets are use it or lose it. The fare is now available in thousands of markets.
American plans to enter this race to the bottom sometime next year, too.
The airlines' spin on this is they're offering price-sensitive customers what they want. Frankly, we haven’t heard many customers clamoring for less or complaining that regular economy is just too luxurious.
Basic Economy is a way for legacy carriers to compete with discount airlines such as Spirit, Frontier and Allegiant, which offer bare-bones fares that undercut the larger airlines but come with an array of add-on fees.
Basic Economy is also the next progression in the nickel-and-dime model or, as the airlines prefer to call it, a la carte pricing. The big difference, though, between an a la carte airline fee and a dinner menu is that at dinner, you're charged separately for an entrée, appetizer and dessert, but you still get your silverware, napkin, tap water and usually bread without paying extra.
Such things as a checked bag were once considered so integral to flying, they were part of the fare. But starting in 2008, airlines began adding charges for just about everything. These fees have become enormous profit centers. Last year, the industry raked in $3.8 billion in baggage fees alone.
Airlines, of course, are in business to make money and can charge what the market will bear. The real problem is the lack of transparency on prices. The array of fees and the gaggle of restrictions are not part of the main fares initially posted on travel websites such as Travelocity and Expedia, turning price comparisons into an arduous exercise requiring an advanced degree in math.
For major carriers, at least one extra click will reveal that a first checked bag generally costs $25, a second, $35. But on low-cost Spirit, for example, you're presented with a range, such as "$45 to $100" for a carry-on, turning trip planning into a high-stakes guessing game.
The Transportation Department has been trying for years to come up with a rule that would force airlines to include at least bag fees and seat assignments in the posted fare on travel websites, so comparisons would be easier. The agency began again in October, but don’t hold your breath. The industry has battled every effort in this direction.
After Basic Economy, what’s next? An even cheaper fare where you get strapped to the wing? They could call it “Open-Air Economy,” with extra legroom.