I continue to beat my head against the wall as I watch the legacy carriers find new ways to screw up implementing Basic Economy. This shouldn’t be all that hard. There should be a low level fare that includes nothing. Call it Basic Economy if you want. Then people should be able to add on the pieces that they want. If they buy it as a bundle, call that something crazy like “Economy,” they should save money over buying the pieces individually. If they choose to buy a la carte, then airlines should alert people if the bundle would save them money. Seems like the customer-friendly way to handle it, right? Of course, that’s not how it works with the legacy carriers. And today, United gets my wrath for how it has implemented selling seat assignments on Basic Economy fares in a customer-unfriendly way.
The whole problem with the Basic Economy premise as it stands is that it has no flexibility for customers to change their minds after purchase. If they wanted to add seat assignments later, they should have been able to do that even if it’s at a high cost. Refusing to take someone’s money when they want to pay you is not a smart way to run a business. So you’d think I’d be cheering this announcement that United will allow travelers to pay for seat assignments. I am… but as always, it’s the implementation that’s flawed. Buying a ticket on United is a mine field that becomes worse with every tweak.
For now, it appears United is making the seat assignment pricing for Basic Economy simple. You can pay $5 for a middle, $10 for a window, or $15 for an aisle on each flight in your reservation. I’m sure that will change over time as the airlines get more sophisticated with pricing, but one problem will remain. There are plenty of scenarios where customers will end up paying more than if they just bought a regular Economy ticket, and United won’t tell them that. To understand this better, let’s book a roundtrip ticket from LA to San Francisco on June 13 returning June 20 using united.com.
First we pull up flights. United is now showing pricing as roundtrip, so we get something looking like this.
That’s Basic Economy on the left followed by regular Economy, flexible Economy, and lowest First Class. I’ve seen some examples where Basic Economy is a higher price than regular Economy, and that’s just weird. (If you buy Basic Economy in that case, you should be smacked.) But in this case, it’ll cost us $20 more to buy regular Economy than Basic. Fine. I want Basic, so once I click on the $150 price, it pops up a warning.
I get all the details, and then I have to actually check the box saying I’m ok with Basic Economy before then clicking the Basic Economy button to reserve it. That’s already a lot of hoops, and despite others suggesting that this is hate-selling, I don’t mind it. It makes it very clear. The problem begins now, however, because that’s not where it ends. There are further warnings on additional pages. Here’s one saying what I already knew, and it gives me the opportunity to buy up for $20.
Now things are starting to get hazy. I’ve already been fed a ton of information about what comes with each fare, and now these different warnings are just too much. I start glazing over and try desperately to just find the button that allows me to move forward with my plan. Soon I find myself staring at a seat map, and this is where I think things get interesting. It’s one thing to read warning after warning on the screen, but it’s another thing when it comes to actually making a decision. I have a seat map in front of me and it becomes more real.
I’ve already gone through so many hoops and become so confused, but now I have this additional choice to make. Should I just purchase the seat assignment? It may not have seemed like something I wanted to do before, but now seeing the seat map in front of me, I decide to do it. But guess what? It’s now more expensive than it would have been to just buy a regular Economy fare that includes the seat. United loves giving me warnings, so does it tell me that here? No. Instead, I just buy Basic Economy and pay $10 more to get less.
How often will this happen? I have no idea, especially since I’m sure seat pricing will begin to vary more over time. But the point is this. United has made the purchase process incredibly complex, and now I can’t even be sure I’m getting the best deal for what I want. This feels a lot like how the airlines have always done things. They come up with an idea, implement it, and then try to work backwards to fit it into their processes in the worst way possible. The end result is a confusing mess.
I know it’s easy to criticize, but this time I come with solutions, two to be exact.
- Cut down on the Basic Economy warnings. There are just too many now. That one pop-up is plenty, and then just stop. The more warnings there are, the less I pay attention.
- If I select seats and the cost is higher than the regular Economy bundled fare, then there should be a pop-up telling me to switch. This’ll do:
I should add that there’s nothing wrong with showing a seat map with these prices AFTER the initial ticket purchase. In that case, people have been given options and they knew adding seats would cost more later. If they decide at the time they want to save $20 by booking Basic Economy, and then only later do they decide they want seat assignments, then by all means charge more than it would have cost during the initial purchase. That only makes sense. But the way it is now? United should be doing much better than this messy experience.