OPINION COLUMNS

You don’t get what you don’t pay for

By Joy Carrico | Published Saturday, January 21, 2017
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American Airlines announced a few days ago that they will soon be selling “Basic Economy” fares in addition to the other main cabin fares. This new fare will be a no-frills ticket to “provide a simple and affordable way to experience American’s network and provide customers the option to pay for the services they want,” according to the news release.

Joy Carrico

Joy Carrico

Here is what “no-frills” means:

  • In-flight experience will remain the same. If others in coach get drinks, the no frills passengers get drinks.
  • No-frillers cannot pick their seats. Upon check-in, the Basic Economy passenger will be assigned a seat automatically. They will, however, have the option to purchase a seat assignment 48 hours before the flight.
  • No upgrades will be permitted regardless of how much one may shine with special privileges due to frequent travel.
  • Only one personal carry-on item will be allowed to no-frillers, and this item must fit under the seat. That means no overhead bin luggage. You can check your bag, as anyone can. And the press release warns that any attempts to bring anything other than an under-seat personal item to the gate will result in a charge for checking the bag plus a $25 gate service charge per bag.
  • No-frillers will be the last to board the plane, unless they hold special status.
  • The tickets are, of course, non-refundable and non-transferable, and no same-day flight change or stand-bys will be allowed.

I have my doubts about the effectiveness of this new plan. The airline states that they want to make air travel available to people who otherwise would be unable to afford a ticket, and they want to reduce the amount of baggage going into their overhead bins.

I wonder how much actual savings will be realized by the Basic Economy ticketholder. American will make up a lot of the fare difference in checked baggage fees.

How many of us can get all we need for a trip in a bag that fits under the seat in front of us? That means we must check a bag. Today, one checked bag on a domestic flight is $25 each way. Assuming we intend to return from where we came, and intend to bring our stuff back with us, we can add $50 to the price of the ticket right off the bat.

In addition to this, any no-friller who either didn’t read the fine print or tries to sneak a roller-bag onto the flight will get a $25 gate service charge tacked onto the $50 they’ll have to pay for checking their bag.

If you want to pick your seat – which you cannot do at the time of purchase, but must wait until 48 hours before the flight – you can add whatever that will cost you.

What will there be left to choose from 48 hours before the trip? Everyone else can pick their seat at time of purchase. This isn’t Southwest, where everyone is crouched over their keyboard 24 hours before their flight, fingers at the ready, to get the best possible boarding order. Whether you pay to get in 48 hours ahead of time or not, you’re at the end of the line.

And speaking of the end of the line, you board last. How many boarding groups are there these days? There’s groups 1-4 for us regular folks, but before that they call in the “elite” to board. After all of these classes, come the no-frillers with their tiny bags.

I went online and checked the fare for a round-trip flight in March from DFW to Chicago O’Hare. The lowest fare available for this trip was $189. How much cheaper can these Basic Economy fares be to offset the added expense and added inconvenience of traveling this way?

We won’t really know how much savings is involved until the new fares are released, but it would have to be substantial. Would a $99 fare be worth it? Probably not to me. I could see where a $49 flight would tempt me to rough it in my air travel, but how can they make any money if they bottom out their prices like that?

This new system has the potential to create chaos and grief in the boarding process. The poor gate agents, who already must usher the passengers onto the planes in an orderly manner and get the flights out on time, will add to that the task of enforcing the new restrictions on this new category of passenger.

The no-frillers board dead last, so at the end of the boarding process, when time is running short, agents have to tell people they can’t take their bags on the plane, send the bags down to be checked and go through the process of charging for the checked bag and the gate service charge. This will take time that the agents will not have to spare.

Travelers are generally not at their best at the airport. An airport is a place where you are not at home, and you are not where you’re going. It’s an in-between place, and most people don’t want to be there. They are impatient to get where they are going, and they act accordingly.

Air travel can be very uncomfortable under normal circumstances. Adding these new restrictions will add to the discomfort. Agents, who are often already treated unkindly by passengers, will now be in the position to tell tired, irritable people at the end of a long line of tired and irritable people that they can’t take their roller bags onto the plane and have to fork over $50.

Airlines do have a problem with overhead storage. Flights routinely run out of room and agents are forced to check bags at the gate for the people boarding the flight in later groups. This is irritating to the passenger, time-consuming for the employees and disruptive to the schedule.

It is commendable that American wants to address this problem somehow, but I don’t think this new fare will have any real impact on their overhead bin storage issue.

While they are using these lower fares to offset the cost of checking the bag, I don’t think people are going to see it that way in the moment. They’ll just feel cheated when all the “extras” get added to their affordable fare.

Realistically, gate agents will not have the time to process checked-baggage fees for each Basic Economy passenger that tries to take a roller-bag on the plane. With enough agents not charging passengers for bags, passengers will figure out that they will usually be able to get away with carrying on a roller bag. They’ll either carry it on or it will be checked at the gate without penalty, and the overhead storage problem will remain.

A better plan might be to just remove baggage charges altogether. Charges for checking bags began after 9-11, when no one was flying and airlines were on the verge of bankruptcy. That crisis has passed.

People carry on their luggage because they don’t want to pay to check it. If they didn’t have to pay $50 round trip to check a bag, more people would check their bags. It would also relieve some of the bag drama that happens at the gate.

If American announced that they were eliminating the checked baggage fee for the first bag, there would be general approval from the populous, I think. And they would have a significant edge over the competition, at least until the rest of the industry followed suit.

There are undoubtedly occasions where buying the cheap seats makes sense. If, for some reason, I didn’t need to bring much with me it might be worth it, especially if the flight itself isn’t that long, since I will probably have an undesirable seat assignment. But I don’t think the average air traveler will appreciate how much they are giving up by traveling in this bare bones way, and I think American is going to get blow-back as people are unhappy with what they aren’t getting as a result of their savings.

People don’t tend to remember that they got cheap tickets at the time of travel. In my experience, people tend to default to a “What have you done for me lately?” mindset. These fares may feel worth it at the time of purchase, but they won’t feel worth it at the time of travel.

Joy Carrico is a Messenger graphic artist.

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