Just when commercial air travel couldn’t get any worse, United seems to have gone and done it. On Tuesday, the airline announced the details of its new class of service called Basic Economy, slated to begin in second quarter 2017.
The new low-budget offering provides passengers with a seat and a small carry-on that fits under the seat. Notably, passengers with Basic Economy tickets are prohibited from stowing luggage in the overhead bin. These fares remove other would-be benefits, such as accrual of elite-qualifying frequent flier miles, assigned seating, the possibility of cabin upgrades and voluntary changes to itineraries, even for a fee. (Of course, involuntary itinerary changes are still available.)
In an industry with notoriously low marks for customer satisfaction, the move to further strip passengers of the already few perks of air travel boggles the mind. United presents this class of service in the name of “more choice,” like a 7-11 might offer a Big Gulp in the name of “more hydration.” While the no-frills offering offends the sensibilities of hobbyist upgrade seekers and points collectors, for the rest of America, we do like to save a buck.
And United stands to make a buck. In its latest sleight of hand, United will sell the same standard economy seats at two different price points: the familiar ‘standard economy’, and the new Basic Economy. What’s unknown is whether the Basic Economy fares will cost less than today’s ‘standard economy’ seating. If not, this formula seems like a roundabout way of doing what Spirit Airlines has done for years — that is, charge passengers a fee to bring carry-ons on board.
Of course, the problem with this strategy will not be revealed until its execution. United fails to appreciate the disconnect between what people want when they buy and what people want when they fly.
In theory, when given the opportunity to save money or spend money, consumers prefer to keep their money — a truth that has allowed low-cost carriers like Spirit Airlines to thrive.
Spirit’s alarmingly yellow website is a model for price transparency that is unrivaled in the industry. Its current homepage provides the uninitiated a lesson in unbundled fares, explaining, “It’s just your a** and gas, and a personal item.” Spirit customers get it, and for those who don’t mind, it’s what keeps them coming back.
Unlike Spirit customers, however, United customers are not going to board a largely uniform cabin where all passengers have equal legroom, amenities, and seating arrangements. Instead, they will shop on United’s dignified blue website and while wooed by the money-saving fantasy, may not envision the passenger-punishing reality.
And that reality looks to be no fun. United will require Basic Economy passengers to board the plane last, in Group 5, so that gate agents can enforce the “no carry-on” rule. Careless passengers with bags that will not fit under the seat will be forced to gate-check the bags — for a fee. Without seating assignments, Basic Economy passengers are not guaranteed to be seated with their traveling companions.
Upon boarding, they will then file past all the business class travelers and other premium and standard economy passengers to find their seats in the extreme rear of the plane. Earlier this year, a study showed that the segmentation of airplane cabins into classes of physical and situational inequality can lead to incidents of air rage.
Will chaos ensue? Probably. As the crew is hurrying to close the door, passengers may learn they will not be seated with their family, that their bags are too large or numerous, or best of all, that the flight is oversold. In that event, accommodation on other airlines, including partner airlines, is not available.
Once seated, Americans will have made their choice. Sitting next to the lavatory and a total stranger, curled up with a good book, it will be worth it because despite the misery, it cost a little less.
And in this case, less really is less.