When Airlines Offer You A Product So You Don’t Buy It

a man in a suit and tie on a news show

It’s an odd world we live in today when it comes to the world of commercial aviation. Some airlines are offering a product that they don’t want you to buy. Think about that for just a minute.

And, it’s spreading.

By now, you’ve probably heard of Basic Economy. I’ve talked about it plenty. Airlines offer different, ahem, benefits with their Basic Economy fares. As a business traveler and a travel blogger, I can’t remember all of the nuances off the top of my head. Imagine what it’s like for folks who only fly once a year.

Airlines and online travel agencies have done a better job lately making sure customers know what type of fare they’re buying, and what the restrictions are. However, for the infrequent traveler, it’s bait and switch.

The general public is more aware that Spirit and Frontier are low-cost carriers. There’s a perception when you buy a ticket on a Spirit Airlines flight that you’re going to get….a seat. And, not much else.

The legacy carriers have spent decades building up networks and offering various benefits to customers. Most travelers have probably never boarded a United flight and been told they couldn’t use available overhead bin space. Without proper communication, passengers are left frustrated.

American, Delta and United don’t necessarily want you to board a flight and be surprised by the negative effects of a Basic Economy.  They do, however, want Basic Economy to be so bad that you don’t buy it.

A price so appealing you try to book it. A product so bad you buy-up when presented with the truth.  Fascinating.

On top of being supremely annoying to customers, it’s very interesting to me from a business perspective. What started amongst the US carriers now seems to be spreading overseas.

British Airways is the latest airline to offer a version of Basic Economy. Starting in December, if you purchase the cheapest fares British Airways has to offer, you’ll be assigned the last boarding group. Since you’re last to board the plane there isn’t likely to be any overhead bin space. No worry, some of those cheapest fares won’t let you bring a larger bag onboard anyway.  In some cases, elite members may be able to avoid the penalty of boarding last.

In a recent appearance on Fox News, television anchor Eric Shawn asked me if passengers would be embarrassed or elated by being forced to board last.

I’m a business traveler who flies hundreds of thousands of miles a year. If I could avoid an extra 20 minutes crammed into a plane on every flight, I’d jump at it. Unfortunately, airline fees are the reason I board early. Years ago, the airlines decided we needed to pay for checked bags. This was done under the auspices of “unbundling” airline ticket pricing. After all, why should we pay for a checked bag if we didn’t plan to use that service?

The Final Two Pennies

The airlines trained customers to carry those bags onboard. That leads to a fight for overhead bin space. Ironically, it also leads to flight delays when bags have to be checked at the last-minute when overhead bin space runs out.

Will the stricter carry-on allowance of some Basic Economy fares cause customers to check more bags ahead of time?  Or, will more customers pay more money to avoid Basic Economy?  The airlines are counting on the latter.

The post When Airlines Offer You A Product So You Don’t Buy It was published first on Pizza in Motion


  1. Fascism plane and simple. Excuse the intentional pun. Government and commerce collude to make our lives as terrible as possible. When the market collapses, I will love to see the airlines take it up the arse. The fascist part is that they will use our public taxes to keep them a float ala 9/11.

  2. Embarrassed to board last? Or proud to have paid far less than the schmucks who board early? I suppose it depends on your perspective.

  3. You seem to be viewing Basic Ecomomy through Frequent Traveller eyes. While I have never booked Basic Economy, I know many folks who travel a few times a year who usually book it to save money. Just took a poll in my office. And …They don’t feel it is bait and switch – as they are purchasing, they read and decide if the lack of amenities is worth the dollar savings. For that particular trip. And then they decide. Infrequent traveler does not mean ignorant.

    1. DL, infrequent traveler also doesn’t mean you travel a few times a year. It means you probably only travel once a year and may not have heard of Basic Economy. If you’ve heard of BE and flown it a few times, that’s much further ahead than a lot of the people I hear from.

  4. Basic economy sucks, but it works for upselling because of anchoring. It’s why when you go to a store, there’s often a cheap and terrible product. It sets the baseline price that you’re willing to pay and then the incremental increase doesn’t seem so much. Given that incremental revenue is what makes airlines profitable, it’s a surprise that this didn’t actually happen sooner, even though it’s terrible for customers.

  5. I don’t get the faux outrage. @Tony Fascism? Step off the ledge, psycho. Basic economy is simply price discrimination. No, that is not illegal, it’s simply a marketing term that means you are charging prices based on what different types of consumers are willing to pay. I think it’s about time airlines did this, like almost every other industry. I think a better way would be to simply price middle seats cheaper, but at least it’s a marginal improvement.

    Are you outraged that mobile phone prices are different depending on how you buy it? I think not. Are you outraged at the profit margins that Apple enjoys, while skirting US income taxes? It’s funny how Apple gets a free pass because of virtue signaling, yet low margin airlines are somehow greedy and evil. Tech companies are mostly oligopolies, while airlines are in near perfect competition, yet still the vitriol. Companies exist to make a profit, and that’s a good thing. In a highly competitive industry like the airline industry, I welcome innovations like basic economy.

  6. Another sneaky reason why this is not going away: Basic Economy is the default result that shows in flight comparison seatch aggregators, which gives that airline first dibs at upselling you.

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