Explaining 'basic economy' to consumers

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Explaining 'basic economy' to consumers
Photo Credit: Vlade Shestakov/Shutterstock.com

As they sell the basic economy fares they brought to market in late February, United and American have taken proactive steps on their websites to avoid confusing consumers. But in other digital channels, displays of the new fare class are less consistent.

Both airlines went live with basic economy fares on Feb. 21. United is thus far offering the fares only on flights between Minneapolis and its seven hub cities, including Chicago, Denver and Newark. American is selling basic economy seats on a total of 10 routes, each involving its hub airports in Dallas, Charlotte, Philadelphia or Miami.

In the case of both airlines, passengers who purchase basic economy tickets are limited to a single carry-on bag, which must fit under the seat. In addition, they are seated at the back of the plane and board in the last group. Their tickets are nonrefundable and unchangeable, and they are not eligible for seat assignments prior to check-in. Flight searches on United and American make these limitations abundantly clear.

For example, on United.com basic economy fares are designated when they come up as a result of a search. Shoppers who select that fare are sent to a screen that attempts to upsell them to a standard economy seat.

In separate columns, the screen delineates the primary differences between the two fare classes and then requires the shopper to either check a basic economy box or click on a button to upgrade to standard economy.

Mixed messages

For both United and American, basic economy fares are still in the testing stage, but so far neither airline is pricing the product aggressively. Read More

American lays out the same type of list for both products, then asks shoppers to choose between an "accept restrictions" button for the cheaper basic economy fare or a "move to main cabin" button for an economy seat.

"We wanted our customers to be absolutely sure that this is the fare for them," United spokesman Jonathan Guerin said of the display.

Guerin said the airline is monitoring OTAs to ensure that they display basic economy offerings in a clear manner as well. If not, Guerin said, United will turn off that fare option until the OTA updates its display system.  A search of OTAs last week showed that some are posting the basic economy fares in a clearer fashion than others.

Notably, the Expedia family of OTAs, including Orbitz and Travelocity, offer shoppers clickable basic economy links on the flight search results screen, where they can read the fare rules. More prominently, if a shopper selects a basic economy itinerary, the Trip Summary screen that follows displays the fare restrictions in a column occupying the right third of the page.

Priceline, however, employs a less obvious display. Flight search results denote which fares are basic economy but do not provide a clickable link to an explanation of what that means. Only after Priceline shoppers enter personal and payment information and reach the "book flight" screen is there a link that lays out the restrictions. That information is not displayed before the purchase as part of the standard booking flow as it is on Expedia.

In an email last week, travel technology analyst Henry Harteveldt of Atmosphere Research Group called Priceline's display a "disaster in the making."

"Priceline does not proactively present adequate information about basic economy fares, which are a new, complex and very different type of airline product," Harteveldt said. "As a result, Priceline's poor presentation could cause extensive consumer confusion."

In a statement, Priceline said that it also has a post-sale "view restrictions link."

"Our customers' satisfaction is paramount, and whether we're offering Express Deals for flights of up to 40% off or displaying our partners' new products, we thoughtfully explain the details," Priceline spokeswoman Flavie Lemarchand-Wood said.

Bob Offutt, senior technology analyst at Phocuswright, said that by their very nature, the basic economy products add complexity to ticket searches, whether online or on GDS interfaces.

Algorithms within the GDSs, he said, update the lowest fares five times per day. Then, when a travel agent does a low-fare search, it will be a problem if he or she wants only economy, not basic economy, options.

In an email last week, Amadeus said it offers basic economy-only searches if an agent is looking only at one airline but not for a search of multiple carriers. Amadeus provided a screen shot of a search result, which showed differentiating fares between basic economy and other fare classes on a United flight from Minneapolis, as well as a link to a display of basic economy fare conditions.

"All the information that agents need to understand and offer these fare options is easily accessible via the Amadeus Fare Family functionality," spokeswoman Debbie Iannaci said.

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