Delta’s Basic Economy Fares Show Why Booking Through Online Travel Agents Is Becoming More and More Hazardous

Delta started a test a couple weeks ago of a new fare offering called Basic Economy. The idea is that it’s a highly restricted fare that gives you nothing more than the promise of some seat on the airplane. It’s not a bad plan at all, but it shines yet another light on how poor the booking experience is becoming with online travel agents, Travelocity being the only one to have tried to address the issue so far.

Basic Economy was first rolled out in the Detroit to Orlando, Ft Myers, Ft Lauderdale, and Tampa markets. If you’re surprised by those markets, don’t be. Those all have multiple flights per day on Spirit, and Delta must be concerned that it is losing out on passengers to fill up the back of the bus. So it introduced Basic Economy which has the following rules:

  • No changes are permitted at all
  • Fare are completely non-refundable
  • Seats are randomly assigned at check-in and cannot be changed
  • All fares on a reservation must be Basic Economy (no mixing with other fares or other airlines)
  • You can buy some of what Delta is now calling “Trip Extras” to add on with things like priority boarding, etc, but that’s about it. It’s a highly restricted ticket. Delta shows it this way on its website:

    Delta Basic Economy Display

    It’s very clear what you’re getting when you book this way, so there won’t be any surprises. But what about those who book through an online travel agent? Looking at the four big guys, Expedia, Orbitz, Priceline, and Travelocity, only Travelocity made any attempt to show that this fare was different than others. Here’s how they break down, from worst to best.

    Priceline is by far the worst here, because not only does it not make any effort to disclose that there are extra rules here, but it actually makes you think you can choose seat assignments in advance. After going through the entire booking process, Priceline presents a link to the raw fare rules and restrictions as filed by the airlines and leaves it up to the traveler to decipher it. Priceline asks if you want to assign a seat, and then lets you pick from the seat map. Undoubtedly, that will get bounced out by Delta later, but will the traveler even know?

    Orbitz, like Priceline, makes you go through the whole booking process before it shows you a link to the airline-filed rules on the payment screen. This is incredibly frustrating because you have to go through multiple pages of upsell attempts before you can find the rules, if you would even bother to pull up the link that’s buried. I can’t imagine anyone is doing it.

    Expedia is only slightly better than Orbitz because it brings the link to the rules page further up front. Right on the flight details page after you pick your flights, you’ll find the link, which again goes to airline-filed rules. This is at least much easier to access because it’s earlier in the booking process.

    Travelocity is the only one that makes any attempt to differentiate the fare in the fare display itself, so it should receive kudos for that.

    Travelocity Delta Fare Display

    It’s not perfect, especially since it appears that the link is broken, but I imagine if it worked, it would link to a page or pop-up that would show all special restrictions on the fare.

    I understand how difficult it is for online travel agents to try to make sense of all the different rules that different airlines put out there, but even something as simple as what Travelocity has done will make a tremendous difference.

    I spoke with Ben Baldanza, CEO of Spirit Airlines, when I was at the Phoenix Aviation Symposium and asked him how many of his bookings came from online travel agents. He said it was around 25 percent, but he noted that 100 percent of the complaints about the airlines policies are from those bookings. People who book direct have a very clear understanding of what’s included and what’s not on every airline website. The online travel agents, however, aren’t keeping up with changes in this industry.

    And this isn’t limited to just online travel agents. Metasearch sites like Kayak are also not doing a good job. Kayak shows you the Delta fare without any details at all. The difference is that it sends you to the Delta website, but it deeplinks you. So you do see that the ticket is non-changeable in small type but you don’t get that clean display that you would if you went to directly.

    Travelocity certainly deserves credit for at least doing something about this problem, but there’s more that needs to be done. If nothing changes, then online travel agents will make themselves more and more irrelevant as time goes on.

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