Last Tuesday morning, I was busy trying to corral the kids when I heard the word “airline” coming from the Today Show in the other room. Of course, I shuddered. When the Today Show covers airlines, it’s usually not good. This time, the claim was that airlines were shaming passengers who bought cheap tickets and trying to make them buy up to a higher fare. The example presented didn’t support the claim, but that didn’t stop so-called passenger advocates from screaming bloody murder. The example showed transparency, not shaming, and it should be encouraged. But some passenger advocates can’t praise the airlines for anything, so they had to find a negative angle. That’s not helpful for anyone who is actually trying to improve the experience.
The “shaming” in question is in relation to Delta’s overlay if you choose a Basic Economy fare on Delta.com. This was recently brought up when Rafat Ali from Skift worked himself into a Twitter frenzy about what he called “hate-selling.” Much of his ranting was targeting car rental companies and hotel booking sites, but he did single out a Delta example as well. Passenger advocates saw “Delta” and jumped on it. Others in the media followed their lead.
What was that example? When you do a search on Delta.com, if Basic Economy fares are in the market, you get something like this in your results.
As you can see, Delta gives you 3 options. Delta has tried to design this page so that it shows two standard options, the Main Cabin and First/Business ones. There’s also the cheaper Basic Economy option, which is summarized briefly at the top. This option is shown in different colors to really try to hammer the point home that this is something different. There’s a link to “view fare comparison chart,” but in the name of setting expectations, Delta has also done this:
When you click on the button to select the Basic Economy fare, it now prompts you to check a box and accept the terms that come with this fare. It spells out incredibly clearly what you won’t be getting. If you don’t like it, you can click “No” and it takes you back to the search results.
I’ve been critical of how Delta implemented Basic Economy, but this is an example of what Delta is doing right (at least directionally). I love that Delta is making it crystal clear what you’ll get, (or really, what you won’t) if you buy that fare. Could it be that an airline is actually trying to properly set expectations? It looks that way.
You would think that this presentation would be welcomed by those passenger advocates who have been arguing for years that airlines need to be more transparent. You’d be wrong. Instead, they’ve gone against everything they’ve argued previously and now say this is just passenger-shaming and is a terrible thing. Apparently simply increasing transparency isn’t enough. For them, it’s not only a matter of intent, but it’s all or nothing.
FlyersRights.org has loudly yelled at airlines for years to improve transparency. Yet an angry rant on the organization’s blog calls this “passive-aggressive, used-car selling at its best, or worst.”
I reached out to Charlie Leocha, a passenger advocate who runs Travelers United, to get his take. To nobody’s surprise, he was not impressed. Instead he says “Delta is the poster child for misleading and deceptive marketing” and rattled off a laundry list of complaints ranging from hiding award charts to not telling people they don’t have to pay for seat assignments.
I agree that Delta’s handling of award charts is pathetic and wrong, but that’s not what we’re talking about here. As I said to him, “So any move toward transparency is unwelcome unless it’s a complete and total move? I would think even an incremental step would be better.”
Charlie said that was “foolish” and went on to say:
When airlines trumpet the airline-inflicted pain that their product causes passengers, withhold prices for both airfares and ancillary fees that passengers need make valid price comparisons, and mislead and deceive passengers in order to push them to spend more money it reflects a corporate depravity that is shameful.
Right. In other words, everything the airlines do is terrible, so unless they blow up the entire system, then they can do nothing good. That stance is completely unhelpful, because it’s not realistic. Sticking to a utopian ideal isn’t going to improve the situation.
The system is the way it is, and what Delta has done here is put together a very transparent view of what people will not get if they buy this cheap fare. Anyone who buys this fare on Delta.com (online travel agents are a whole different, obnoxious problem) can’t say they aren’t aware of the restrictions that come with it.
What I find most amusing about this whole thing is that if Delta is in fact trying to shame people into buying higher fares, the airline is doing a really bad job of it. What Delta should do is change the wording in that overlay to say something like “for only $20 more, you get a free seat assignment, a changeable ticket, earlier boarding, etc.” Then it should give a big green button where travelers can click to get the higher fare.
But Delta doesn’t even get close to that. If you click no, it just takes you back to the original search results screen. I’d argue this is a real lost opportunity for Delta, and not one that would have been missed if the primary goal was the upsell. Instead, Delta is just sternly pointing out what you won’t get if you buy the fare. That may or may not be the best tactic here, and I’ve gotten into it with others in the industry about whether a positive or negative message is better. But what is clear is that it’s better that Delta does this than nothing at all.
Would I like to see this taken further? Heck yeah. I want to see this kind of disclosure on every fare. I want to see a concise and understandable explanation of change fees, seat fees, boarding priorities, etc. I don’t have a pie-in-the-sky expectation that the entire model will change. I just want to know what I’m getting. Technology isn’t fully there yet because things can vary by elite status and credit cards, but progress is being made.
What Delta is doing here is a great start and sets a framework for how airlines can do a better job of disclosing everything people need to know. Delta needs to do better with it, as do other airlines. But I simply can’t understand the argument that this is a bad thing. The people saying that are people who just want to disagree with airlines regardless of what they do. They want to bring down the system instead of improve it. That kind of stance isn’t helping anyone.