Stand Together to Fight Back Against Basic Economy Fares

By Robert McGarvey

More reports trickle in about employers that are requiring employees to purchase the so-called basic economy, barebones airfares that usually mean a middle seat, no overhead bin storage, and still less.  Word of advice: just say no.  Push back against that employer want and, honestly, it just is bad for business anyway.

I can’t see business travelers voluntarily opting for basic economy – right now I see the push coming from corporate bean counters and they know they won the fight to herd most of us into coach.

When I fly, it almost always is in coach. I don’t see clients that will spring for front of the plane seats and, although I initially grumbled, I have resigned myself to the inevitability of coach.  So did most other business travelers – which is why the bean counters triumphed.

But a line needs to be drawn against basic economy – even if the bean counters are eyeballing this as a new cost-cutting battleground.

Don’t say you can’t win this fight. You can.  Business travelers have won fights before, notably – in most cases – the right to keep rewards miles and spend them on personal travel.  As far back as the 1980s, some organizations tried to seize those miles . In 1990, the New York Times even ran a story headlined, “Most Employers Covet Frequent Flier Bonus Miles.”    

The dust up continues  today.but, frankly, most employers beat a retreat from this demand in the face of strong employee pushback. Acting as one just about all of us fought to keep the miles – and employers heard us.

Solidarity made the difference.

That same resistance can be harnessed to fight back against basic economy. I know many organizations require their people to use the cheapest available fare, or something very close to the cheapest.  That’s fine, in my mind, particularly when the employer tempers the requirement with common sense, mainly rooted in travel time.  It just is dumb to force an employee to buy a one stop flight from EWR to PHX even if the fare is $100 cheaper, possibly as much as one third less.

But that cheap flight also often is two or three hours longer.

It’s bad business to require business travelers to book flights with stops because they are cheaper.

It’s also bad business to require business travelers to fly basic economy.

I’m not the only naysayer. business travel blogger Joe Brancatelli recently said: “Basic Economy is not a new, cheaper fare that the three remaining legacy carriers have introduced. All they’re doing is taking their existing cheapest fare in a market, stripping out functionality and rebranding it.

You’re not saving any money if you buy Basic Economy. You’re just getting less than ever.”

Brancatelli is right.

Although the big carriers basic economy fares differ in nuances – Delta for instance allows an overhead bag, United doesn’t; American also bans overhead bin use, except for elites and holders of some AA credit cards – the bottomline is that there is no advance seat selection.

And you can’t upgrade seats, even with reward miles.

To me, what that does is eliminate the possibility of doing inflight work and – pretty much always – I work inflight.  I often use the time to write a blog, I frequently catch up on business reading, and I may, if I have splurged on WiFi, do email.  But comfortably doing such tasks requires – in my mind – an aisle seat,

I can’t imagine working from a middle seat.

I also can’t imagine not getting access to the overhead bin because it has been some years since I checked a bag and doing that adds maybe 30 minutes to a trip, time typically spent at a baggage carousel. Those are minutes I do not need to lose.

There also will be a bag check fee for many passengers and that naturally eats away at the savings that basic economy is supposed to deliver.

Tickets typically cannot be changed either and, for a business traveler, that may be a deal killer. Of course I have grumbled about change fees – who hasn’t, aside from Southwest passengers? But these basic economy fares often allow no change. Period.

There are more take-aways involved with basic economy. Some carriers – United for instance – don’t allow basic economy flights to count towards elite status.  American counts Basic Economy flights towards elite status, but elite qualifying miles are earned “at a reduced rate of 0.5 per mile/flight segment flown.”

For me, the elite status issues are no big deal – I have sworn off status for 2017 – but for many others this will be another deal killer.  

Add up the plusses – supposedly a cheaper fare – and the negatives and obviously the carriers have stacked basic economy to appeal no to business travelers but to leisure travelers who are determined to pay the least possible to fly.  

Just say no if orders come down to book basic economy to save the company a tiny amount of money money.  

And urge other business travelers to do likewise.

We have nothing to lose but the middle seats.

3 thoughts on “Stand Together to Fight Back Against Basic Economy Fares”

  1. Good advice. I am completely fair and reasonable with respect to business travel but I pick my hotel, I pick my airline and car rental company and I ensure the bookings are correct. I don’t waste money but I also don’t sacrifice time or put myself at risk in a dodgy hotel.

  2. The battle over frequent flyer miles disappeared when the IRS indicated that they would start to view them as taxable if employers started to treat them as corporate assets.

    1. The IRS position is rather nuanced –

      Most employers that I know of backed off any claims to miles before the IRS rules became clarified (to the murky extent that they are). But – I still hear about small businesses and government bodies that claim miles and I am unaware of tax consequences

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