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
    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
    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
    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
    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 Delta.com 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.


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

  1. An airline is not going to do something it’s own website can’t do so these online sites will always be playing catch up.

    I don’t use online sites, but don’t understand why people who do go there and see a price/flights they like, don’t go directly to the airlines site to book? It’s safer since no third party is involved and the fare could be lower on the actual airlines site.

  2. This feels like it’s written a bit backwards, as I doubt I’m alone in believing that (in this order) Kayak, HipMonk, and Bing Travel Search are all more important than what you’re calling online travel agents or resellers.

    You mention Kayak briefly at the end of the piece, but I would love to hear more about how those three are treating issues like this, and less about the travel agents, which I agree are obsolete, because they seldom if ever have a better price than searching the aggregators and buying direct.

    Thoughts?

    • Elliott P says:

      The problem is that your middle-of-the-country consumer has never heard of kayak or or hipmonk. It’s expedia or nothing for most of them. Trust me, I’m surrounded by such consumers.

    • CF says:

      Zachary – The online travel agents are far bigger and more important than metasearch sites when it comes to people booking their travel. But the metasearch (eg Kayak, Bing, etc) sites have similar issues, as I stated with Delta. Now, if Delta redesigned its landing page as Nick suggests below, then that could help solve the problem but not really. People want to see the fare details when they’re comparing, not after they’ve clicked off to another airline site to book. So they should do better as well.

  3. Jake says:

    @ZacharyRD I was curious too. In doing a few sample searches on hipmunk and kayak, the best results more often take me directly to the airline’s page where it’s a little easier to understand what you’re getting into. Granted, it’s a page that’s a little further into the booking process than if you had gone directly, but still seems a bit easier to understand than some of the orbitz-style sites.

  4. JayB says:

    One would have thought that once the airline industry was deregulated, all the fare rules and regulations that used be required by CAB would have disappeared and the ability to price a ticket, allow for the booking, and make the sale would be dramatically simplified. Sorry, didn’t happen.

    No, even though the airlines don’t have a Federal agency to which they must submit all this garbage (forgive me, important stuff, I mean), the airlines could never see themselves without paragraph after paragraph, listing rules, routings, regulations, prohibitions, exclusions, etc., applying to every fare they sell or anyone sells for them. Shame, shame!

    Someday, probably long after I’m dead and gone, and every airline operating today is dead and gone as well, this nonsense will stop and airline tickets will be sold like every other service is sold, simply and easily, in a typical buyer and seller arrangement.

    As with any service one buys, once the price of the service is agreed to, you can’t expect to change the service requested, or the service to be provided later, or expect a full refund for it, with no repercussion. But that doesn’t mean that you, the buyer can’t discuss the matter with the seller and reach some sort of deal. It should have nothing to do with the price of the ticket. And whether I can use the fare to mix with any other fare or other airline’s fare, please, dear airline, go away.

    The price of a ticket is the price I and the airline agree to, and you don’t need all these rules and regs. Someone like a Cranky knows all this much better than I do, and I pray that he is there to see it properly changed someday.

    • I’d argue that those paragraph after paragraph of rules and regulations are a direct result of our litigious culture. They’re likely presented poorly because of the size restrictions at GDS systems (remember these things are 1970s era computers, compressing that text down had significant actual savings, and it was designed to be read by people who were trained on it.)

      Many other products and services are sold with similarly long legal agreements, I find airlines are no different. Take a look at your cell phone, internet service agreement, or automobile purchase..

  5. Clare says:

    What is going to happen when you book award travel using frequent flyer miles? Are they automatically going to shunt you to these highly restricted bookings with no seat assignment possible?

    • Fred says:

      Frequent flyer tickets are completely separate booking classes with completely different sets of rules. They are fairly similar to the conditions of regular economy tickets though. (It’s been this way for 10+ years now)

  6. James Williams says:

    It seems like this is the re-emergence of the shuttered Song.

  7. Matt says:

    Curious as to how mileage is earned on these flights. . . do MVP’s (medallion whatever for you non-AS people) still get 1.5 miles, does anyone get miles at all, free bag, etc? I always book directly from airlines websites, but sometimes use Kayak to get there, glad to know this so I can pay more attention. As a DTW-based flyer, I would be most upset if I found myself on one of these flights and didn’t realize it until I tried to check seat assignments at check-in. Hope it stays primarily on leisure routes.

    • They are mainline DL or Delta Connection operated as DL so the mileage accrual will probably be the same.

    • CF says:

      I haven’t seen anything talking about mileage accrual, so I assume it’s the same? Not sure.

    • aep says:

      Ah, it’s not. Going to the DL earning page on the AS site it shows this text:
      “Mileage is not earned for tickets flown in E class of service. ”

      According to the example above, these are ‘E’ fares….

  8. I wonder if Delta could catch the folks coming in from Hipmonk/Kayak and more clearly state what exactly you’re getting, since they’re bypassing the clearest explanation of the fare differences?

  9. tharanga says:

    This is just more of the same – very different offerings are not clearly differentiated (if at all) on kayak and the like. I’ve long felt that this was one of the driving forces in the race to the bottom – an airline has a strong incentive to offer a bare-bones fare, so it appears atop the search page, and then after the customer is hooked, make up the difference with fees.

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