Once upon a time, passengers aboard an airplane were guaranteed free checked baggage, a can of soda, and maybe some extra legroom if they asked for it.
But the basic features of economy-class air travel are steadily becoming privileges, not rights. More and more airlines are offering tickets for seats in sub-economy class sections, where seats cost less than standard economy, but the perks are even fewer.
As the Economist recently outlined, Delta Air Lines last year launched ”basic economy” seating for select routes. The company promises the tickets will cost less than those for standard class. But customers who opt for this tier forfeit their right to pre-select seats, fly standby, re-schedule flights, or receive upgrades.
American and United have since told shareholders they intend to launch something similar this year, though specific details on those plans aren’t yet public.
The trend toward low-priced, no-frills tickets stems from competitive pressure, specifically from budget carriers like Spirit Air in the US and Ryanair in Europe. Those companies have faced criticism from the media and from consumers for poor customer service and hidden fees. But while customers might complain, they’re still buying tickets in droves. Spirit and Ryanair are two of the most profitable airlines in the world.
If the big carriers are losing customers to cheap tickets elsewhere, then cheap tickets are probably the only way to win them back. These airlines might not stoop so low as to charge fees for having your boarding pass printed by a gate agent (they’re $10 apiece at Spirit)/ But charging extra for the privilege to change a flight in advance is one way to keep squeezing fees from price-sensitive consumers.