I am an awards booker. I spend hours per day looking at airfare, both in terms of award mileage and cash fares for positioning flights. Basic economy fares have made my work unnecessarily complicated.
United and American have billed basic economy as a new class of service. Fliers who normally don’t have the funds to travel on a major carrier now can, the airlines claim.
I find that assertion to be flat wrong. Instead, airlines are using these fares to manipulate and complicate the process of searching for and booking flights. Based on my experience, basic economy fares appear to be a hack conceived to move an airline’s flights higher in cost-based search results, without compromising revenue.
Take this recent flight I booked for a client between Los Angeles and Houston. The advertised fare was $257 round trip.
See the note about carry-on baggage?
United certainly makes it clear that customers are purchasing a basic economy fare. The landing page features this big orange box, next to a button allowing customers to upgrade to a standard economy fare.
The fare class rules are not what is deceptive here. Instead, the basic premise of offering this fare is fraudulent.
There is a $20 difference between the basic economy fare and standard economy fare, each way. It costs $25 to check a bag, which you are required to do if you buy a basic economy fare. The only scenario in which a basic economy fare affords a net savings is if a flier is travelling with no substantial luggage.
Why would anyone pay $25 to check a bag when they can upgrade to a fare class that allows them to carry on their bag AND pick a seat for $20?
The basic economy fare does not offer fliers any net savings over a standard economy ticket. In fact, presuming a flier is bringing something other than a purse with them across the country, the basic economy fare, with baggage fees, is actually more costly.
The basic economy fare is valuable for United, though. Remember that Google Flights search page we started on? United’s basic economy fare positions its flights near the top of the search results.
If United had advertised its standard economy fare — remember, the only one that makes economic sense for the customer — its flights would have appeared several rows down, behind American Airlines.
The net cheapest option for any passenger not living out of a backpack is the American Airlines flight. This itinerary costs the same as United’s advertised fare, but includes baggage.
In this example, United Airlines comes across as the cheater, but United is not alone in this game. American also publishes these basic economy fares, replete with checked baggage requirements, on other routes, effectively boosting its standing in search results.
What this appears to be is an arms race to manipulate flight search engines. This is a deceptive business practice designed to marginally improve online ticket sales at the expense of transparency. The practice adds to the time it takes to search for flights, as customers have to reconsider the cost of additional fees and fares advertised by other carriers that include those services.
Google, Kayak and other search engines that are being manipulated in this scheme should react accordingly. If anything, this practice is a threat to their value proposition, which is to simplify the process of searching for flights. Basic economy fares complicate that process in a way that favors airline profits over consumer convenience.