Jessie Raymond: ‘Basic economy’ isn’t what it used to be

I’ve got a notion to open a bed-and-breakfast, with a twist.
Get this: You book a room in advance, but when you get here, I inform you — with an unapologetic smile — that I may have sold your room to someone else. To make it up to you, I’ll let you stay here on a different, less convenient night for the same price.
This is a brilliant business model that helps ensure that, in the event of a cancellation, I don’t end up with an empty room. It’s called “basic economy,” and I learned about it recently just before boarding a flight.
Tiffany, the desk clerk with the unapologetic smile at gate C19 in Detroit, explained basic economy: We weren’t guaranteed seats on our flight back to Burlington because the carrier had oversold it.
Being naïve about the ways of capitalism, I had always assumed that if you paid $645 for a plane ticket, that $645 would include, if nothing else, seats on each of your flights.
Apparently not.
I booked our tickets online as I always do, months in advance. I did not downgrade. I did not use a coupon code or take a sale price or knowingly offer to give up simple amenities (such as a place to sit on the aircraft). I bought what I thought were standard tickets.
In the airline world, “standard” is not what it used to be.
I get that some people pay extra for first class. Others pay for preferred boarding. (As far as I can tell, this means (a) you get to walk across the red indoor/outdoor carpet runner at the gate instead of across the blue one right next to it, and (b) you get to board early, a dubious honor that includes being stuck in an enclosed space breathing recycled air a good 15 minutes longer than the basic economy plebes.)
Yes, fine, I did pass up the option of paying extra to select specific seats. But I figured not choosing seats meant only that they’d be randomly assigned. Silly me.
Turns out, you can pick a seat — adding $25 to your ticket, or $100 per person for a round trip with two flights each way — or you can risk being placed in the very back row, by the restroom, with your knees tucked under your chin (as we were on the first three of our four flights). And that’s if you get a seat at all.
Enjoy your flight (maybe)!
While I didn’t appreciate being at the losing end of basic economy, I have to give the airline industry credit. Over the past couple of decades, it has turned every part of flying that was once included into an add-on.
Want to check a bag? That’s extra. Want adequate leg room? Extra. Want a promise that you’ll be able to get on this particular flight? Really? How bad do you want it? Because it’s going to cost you.
In the end — after waiting an extra three hours because our scheduled plane broke down — we did get our seats. And, as a result of fatigue and basic economy anxiety, we found ourselves thanking Tiffany for letting us get on the flight. That we had paid for. Three months earlier.
It’s not like these tactics are hurting the airlines. The carrier we flew racked up $5.1 billion in profits in 2018. It pays to force passengers to shell out extra for every bit of comfort.
I can’t wait to see what the airlines come up with next. Do you want an oxygen mask to drop down in the event the cabin loses pressure? Add $25. Do you want the flight attendant not to pour hot coffee on your lap once the plane reaches cruising altitude? Add $25.
I’ve never enjoyed flying, and my accidental foray into basic economy has only hardened my dislike of the airlines. But it’s also shown me the entrepreneurial possibilities.
So please consider reserving a room at my future B&B. You can pay extra for a real mattress with blankets and pillows instead of the standard, a sleeping bag on the floor; for a country breakfast rather than the standard, a handful of Saltines and a glass of tepid water; even for bathroom privileges, if you’re feeling fancy.
Or, if you don’t want to spring for all those luxuries, you can always choose basic economy. That means you pay me $250 for the bare minimum and hope that I hold a room for you.
Enjoy your (possible) stay!

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