Basic economy tickets could cost fliers more, new report warns

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WASHINGTON, DC -- Basic economy plane tickets may not be as cheap as you think. A new Congressional report is shedding light on a trend taking off with major airlines. Our Washington Bureau’s Alana Austin explains how one senator is digging into the truth behind travel.

Fliers looking to snag the cheapest fares with United, Delta and American airlines may be in for a surprise when booking basic economy tickets.

“This is a misconception through advertising as if the big three airlines had a special new tourist class fare when in fact it was a new fare that was the old fare but with restrictions," said Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL)

Over the past few years, major airline companies began rolling out these bare bones deals. While it might fly for those hunting down the lowest prices and catching the fine print, Nelson says many do not realize cutting costs means cutting basic services.

“That’s what I was raising a ruckus about - you’ve got to be truthful in what you’re telling people, you’ve got to be clear and don’t let people think that they’re getting something new low fare when it’s the same fare but now you have to pay extra for baggage, etc," said Nelson.

As the top Democrat on the Senate Commerce committee, Nelson is fired up about a new report, saying travelers might get blindsided if tickets don’t cover baggage or allow for changes to seats or travel plans. And he’s not flying solo on this…

“Senator Bill Nelson is exactly right," said Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business Professor of Marketing Professor Rebecca Hamilton.

Hamilton says when frazzled travelers show up to the airport and get hit with extra fees, those frustrations could backfire for airlines.

“When advertising to consumers it’s important to have the full price disclosure within the advertisement rather than drip drip drip pricing where you’re only learning the price when it’s too late," explained Hamilton.

Hamilton says one problem is the pressure put on companies by travel booking sites like Expedia. Price is so prominently featured, the competition for the lowest fare hits a peak.

“The really big message is that this is not just airlines: it’s a variety of industries," Hamilton said consumers run into similar problems with rental cars, cell phone and cable plans, and more.

"The best that we can hope for from a consumer perspective is to have all these fees bundled together so that the consumer can choose among providers based on all the information, but it’s often the case that they’re going to get surprised from these fees.”

Hamilton says the Federal Trade Commission website has helpful tips for avoiding pitfalls. And if that Congressional report doesn’t raise enough awareness about the issue, the Commission can investigate industries and publicly shame firms.

A Delta spokesperson tells us: “Delta continues to raise the bar on a differentiated customer experience with investments in new aircraft, improvements in airport facilities, deeper partnerships with other airlines, and the introduction of cutting-edge technology. Maintaining transparency and choice in pricing is another way we demonstrate our commitment to our customers. We know customers rely on accurate information when they travel, and Delta’s efforts to build the nation’s most reliable airline extend to providing clear and complete information about fares and optional products. By more closely aligning our offerings with customer preferences, travelers do not have to pay for services they do not want. By charging separate fees for some services rather than single comprehensive fares, Delta has been able to develop a variety of products and innovative onboard experiences that range from deeply discounted fares to premium services. This ability to better tailor our products has contributed to improved customer satisfaction scores and a better travel experience for all of our customers.”

United Airlines tells us: "We are taking great care to ensure our customers understand what they are buying when purchasing a Basic Economy ticket. We’ve put a number of checks in place throughout the buying process on and we continue to work with travel agencies to ensure customers purchasing a Basic Economy fare, regardless of the booking channel, are aware of the restrictions. We are pleased with the roll-out of Basic Economy across our domestic network and find that the majority of customers who purchase a Basic Economy ticket are arriving at the airport aware of the details this fare entails. We continue to refine our Basic Economy offering in order to address customer feedback. We recently introduced new functionality that allows customers purchasing a Basic Economy fare to purchase an advance, standard Economy seat assignment up to 24 hours prior to departure. This gives customers a simple way to ensure they sit together if they want to, while still saving money by purchasing a Basic Economy fare. Since launching in April 2017, we’ve seen important operational benefits that impact all customers, including faster boarding times, fewer gate-checked bags, fewer flights with full overhead bins, fewer delays attributable to carry-on bags and increased customer satisfaction scores."

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