Flying is Cheaper Than Ever Before – at the Cost of Comfort: Why airlines are cutting legroom, food, and more

There is perhaps nothing in the world that is simultaneously admired yet scorned as the experience of flying.

Excuse my romanticism here for a minute, but I think it’s worth recounting just how exceptional flight is. The fact that we have an invention which can weigh over a million pounds, travel near the speed of sound, and have the endurance to travel halfway around the world is remarkable. Trips that once took weeks, even months, can now be conquered in a number of hours – though that number is greatly variable, as Austin is closer to Boston than Australia, for example. Even so, this is astonishing.

In past decades, flying was a luxury. Comfortable seats and high-class meals were the tenets of an exclusive experience. Of course, the price tag on a plane ticket made it something that could only be afforded by the wealthy – but for those who had the means, the end was worth it.

How the Times Change

Fast-forward to the early 2000s. From TWA to Trump Shuttle (yes, a real carrier), airlines had come and gone over the century before. As the 2000s came along, people were much more likely to be ranting about the perception of being treated poorly going through security checkpoints, at the gate, or on the plane. And while September 11th certainly had a significant, negative impact on airlines, one that took years to overcome, the cost-cutting had already started: for the most part, airlines were no longer serving meals, and the era of ancillary revenue (fees for things that would have been standard 50 years ago) had started.

Who knew olives were so expensive?

There are certain carriers that are synonymous with charging for the majority of amenities. I’ve joked that Spirit Airlines, for example, charges for everything except oxygen, as it even charges those who want an in-flight bottle of water. Norwegian Air Shuttle, meanwhile, has become known for charging for meals – something once unthinkable for those traveling on transatlantic flights. Regardless of whether these actions have precedent or not, these carriers have begun to develop reputations for being extremely stingy with what they provide to customers in their respective markets.

To be fair, it’s not just the “budget” carriers that are cutting costs – the legacies are equally culpable, especially in the United States. A famous tale about carriers “penny pinching”: former American Airlines CEO Robert “Bob” Crandall found that he could save the airline in excess of $100,000 per year by removing olives from the salads served in coach (predictably, he kept the olives in the first-class salads).

That’s an extreme example, of course, but carriers are always finding ways to cut costs. Generally, it’s the people flying coach that have to bear the brunt of the reductions in service. For decades, no American carrier served complimentary meals in economy class on domestic flights, and – despite that trend being bucked by American and Delta earlier this year – currently the only way to get a complimentary economy meal is to be on certain transcontinental flights. Ultimately, if you’re lucky enough to be served a free meal on one of those flights, you’re in the minority – the majority of passengers flying domestic economy within the U.S. will not get a free meal (for the time being).

A Rock and a Hard Place

I have no problem admitting that I’m a British Airways fan. From the Union Jack tail and Speedmarque to the majestic combination of the two on the carrier’s Boeing 747-400, I can name numerous reasons that I like the flag carrier of the United Kingdom. I even had yet another excellent experience flying BOS-LHR-BOS on BA back in April.

However, I am not afraid to say that, in my view, the carrier has made a number of mis-steps in its effort to cut costs. The decision to start charging for food (albeit food from Marks and Spencer, a high-quality brand) on intra-Europe flights was, at best, a slight reduction in service to cut costs. At worst, it was the first step of a long-respected carrier losing its reputation as a customer service darling.

More than Meals

It’s not just the food that has passengers questioning the quality of Britain’s flag carrier. Since CEO Alex Cruz, the former head of Spanish low-cost carrier Vueling, took over in 2016, many have alleged that Cruz – along with Willie Walsh (CEO of parent company IAG and former BA CEO) – is trying to turn the carrier into a low-cost carrier of sorts, as a litany of “customer-unfriendly” changes are in the works in both the premium and economy classes. In addition to removing the second meal on westbound long-haul flights, he sounded out the possibility of charging for meals on long-haul flights in the future – a possibility that BA adamantly denied was on the cards at the time, but nevertheless one that upset passengers.

I’ve certainly been critical of Cruz since he’s come in. Additionally, I don’t think that running a low-cost carrier like Vueling is necessarily great preparation for running one of the world’s most venerable brands.

At the same time, I can somewhat understand why he’s making these (admittedly undesirable) changes. After all, new, low-cost carriers like Norwegian and WOW Air have begun putting pressure on transatlantic carriers to cut their prices in order to stay competitive. For example, when Norwegian can sell a JFK-LGW ticket for $300, it certainly makes one think twice about shelling out $600+ to fly JFK-LHR on one of the legacies, even if it means paying for checked bags or eating at the airport restaurant to save some money.

It certainly doesn’t provide the same allure as flying Emirates, but, as of this writing, British Airways is still listed as a SKYTRAX four-star airline – one star better than any of the American legacy carriers in American, Delta, and United. Yet amidst a number of recent complaints about the experiences in both the premium and economy classes, many would say that BA is not making it easy to justify paying extra for an allegedly less-than-stellar experience. The challenge for BA will be to balance its cost-cutting measures with improvements in passenger experience – improvements that will enable passengers to justify paying a premium to fly “the World’s Favourite Airline.”

Consumers Drive the Market

Food and amenities aren’t the only thing that airlines are cutting. Aside from staffing reductions, perhaps the most controversial cuts in the airline industry have been to something that directly impacts the comfort of (most) passengers: legroom.

That’s right: carriers – including American Airlines – are reconfiguring planes to hold more seats, which ultimately reduces the amount of legroom that each passenger is entitled to. In fact, Spirit of all carriers is giving American a run for its money. Just to underline how notable this is, Spirit is the same carrier whose planes are so crammed that its seats can’t be reclined (the carrier calls them “pre-reclined” – which, however disingenuous, is a brilliant turn of phrase, I must say).

Why would American do this to itself? United President Scott Kirby – who formerly held the same role at American – put it simply:

“Seat pitch has come down…because that’s what customers voted with their wallets that they wanted. … [E]very time airlines put more seat pitch on, customers choose the lowest price. Customers have to be willing to pay if they want more seat pitch. And the evidence is that they aren’t willing to.”

I have to say that I have some reservations about Kirby’s oversimplified supply-and-demand equation, as I don’t believe that load factors would suffer as much as he might claim if ticket prices were raised as a result of more legroom. Yet as much as we might hate to admit it, he is (mostly) right. These days, it’s all about finding the lowest price – although those low prices are more due to low oil prices and increasingly fuel-efficient aircraft rather than the benevolence of airlines.

Even so, I am as guilty of this as any: I almost always go for the cheapest ticket, as it is much easier to justify spending a sub-$100 amount to fly somewhere for a weekend versus shelling out $200+ but having more legroom. The unfortunate reality is that the current trend will likely continue: as we continue to demand cheaper prices, airlines will continue to shrink legroom to stay competitive.

On a lighter note, there is one thing you can do to combat experiencing ever-shrinking legroom: fly on my favorite American carrier – jetBlue!

Dispirited Experiences: What makes Spirit so undesirable?

I’ve flown Spirit Airlines twice – once to Chicago O’Hare, once to Baltimore. Both times, I got on the outbound leg of my trip, flew to my destination, and had no complaints.

Unfortunately, the return legs of both trips proved to be much less pleasant.

On the trip back from Chicago, my flight was delayed by an hour. Coming back from Baltimore, it was 2 ½ hours. Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice, shame on you.

The Spirit Hallmarks

Spirit brands itself as an ultra-low cost carrier (ULCC). And in certain instances, Spirit’s prices are less than those of a number of carriers. However, I have found a number of times where American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, jetBlue, and United Airlines have beaten Spirit’s offering by some distance. As a result, I don’t really buy Spirit’s implicit M.O. of “the reason we provide (virtually) zero amenities is so we can deliver the cheapest fares.” They’ve even explained that they charge for water because putting water on the plane makes the plane weigh more, thus leading to the need for more fuel and increased fuel expenses. Given that a variety of airlines have started to charge for refreshments, I get it, but a glass of water is different than a can of soda – I don’t know of any other carrier that charges for the former.

Getting Carried Away

In an era where airlines have come under increased scrutiny for charging checked bag fees, Spirit has taken it one step further, as the carrier charges for carry-on bags. To an extent, I don’t mind this. I can’t tell you how much it bothers me to see oblivious people trying to stuff their over-sized carry-on into the overhead bin. At the same time, I think charging for carry-ons is a little excessive, and could perhaps be the beginning of an avalanche of ancillary fees.

Things Aren’t Always What they Seem

Ultimately, Spirit’s lack of amenities is done in the name of frugality – it certainly doesn’t intend to be malevolent. In fact, the carrier openly acknowledges its lack of amenities, telling passengers that a lack of frills is how the carrier is able to sustain its business model. However, I can’t say that I buy this, either. For example, jetBlue can afford to provide passengers with free refreshments, free seat selection, free Wi-Fi, and free DirecTV. I can’t say I comprehend why Spirit feels the need to do without TVs, Wi-Fi, or an adequately-sized tray table.

Of course, my sample size may of Spirit experiences be small. Moreover, I do not doubt there are passengers who fly Spirit without delays. However, Spirit’s no-frills rationale seems flawed, particularly considering the existence of jetBlue and Southwest Airlines. After all, these two low-cost carriers are the two highest-ranked U.S. carriers in the J.D. Power & Associates customer satisfaction rankings. Maybe if Spirit focused more on service, it would be able to rid itself its bad reputation.

The Basics of United’s Basic Economy

When I first heard that United was unveiling a Basic Economy product comparable to the experience of an ultra-low cost carrier (ULCC), I wasn’t sure what exactly to expect. On the one hand, I have flown on an ULCC – Spirit Airlines – and have not been overly impressed with anything except for the cost of my ticket. However, I am a big believer in making flying as accessible as possible, and while I do think that even the legacy carriers have decreased their airfares across the board, there are certain amenities that certain people simply don’t feel that they need on a short domestic flight: food, drink, etc.

What are the differences?

To the average traveler, the two main things that differentiate Basic Economy from United’s normal Economy product are:

  1. The traveler cannot bring a carry-on bag on board the aircraft. Personal items are allowed, however.
  2. You cannot choose your seat when you purchase your ticket. Seats are assigned at check-in.

Another component of Basic Economy – one that is perhaps less pertinent to people who don’t fly frequently – is that frequent flyers cannot earn elite qualifying miles (EQMs) with Basic Economy fares. They will earn redeemable “award miles” that can be used towards redeeming flights in the future, but these miles will not count towards the earning of elite status. (If you want to learn more about the difference between award miles and EQMs, check out this comprehensive explanation from The Points Guy).

United isn’t the first airline to go with a form of “assigning” seats. In fact, Southwest Airlines’ unique policy gives every traveler a boarding classification consisting of a letter (A-C) and number (1-60) based on when they check in, albeit Southwest elite members are assigned a better boarding position (usually A1-A15), hence allowing them a better chance at their preferential seat. Southwest claims that this makes boarding far more efficient, and as someone who has flown on Southwest I can’t disagree: both boardings were extremely quick. However, I personally like to know that I’m getting a window seat, so – for that reason – this wouldn’t be something that I would choose. With Southwest, you can get in a solid boarding position by checking in early: I got window seat 3F from position B6, which was in the second full boarding group. With United, however, you’re relying on the luck of the draw. Additionally, passengers sitting Basic Economy seats are relegated to the last boarding group. Not a huge deal, but some might not enjoy having to wait to board and – likely – disembark.

I can’t say that I’m super upset about less carry-ons, though. As someone who often sees people either struggling to fit their (too large) carry-on into the overhead compartment, I personally think that a lot of people try to push the limit with carry-ons. A personal item, however, is much more restrictive, and the consequences of not being able to fit said item under the seat are, I think, more likely to deter people from making poorly-advised decisions regarding how large their personal item is.

What don’t people like about ULCCs?

There are a number of reasons, but I’ll outline my own reason for avoiding ULCCs.

I’ve only flown twice on an ULCC, both times with Spirit. And while my sample size of ULCC experiences is admittedly small, my issue with ULCCs has been the sheer lack of reliability that I’ve experienced. Both times I’ve flown Spirit, the way out has been on time, but the way back has been delayed by at least an hour; in the second case (a return flight from BWI), it was 2 1/2 hours. And while Spirit did provide a $50 voucher for that delay, that was enough for me to decide that enough is enough. Delay me once, shame on me; delay me twice, shame on you.

Additionally, the difference in price between a ULCC and your average low-cost carrier (LCC) is usually negligible. In fact, jetBlue, which is my favorite domestic airline, is a low-cost carrier, and I’ve found its prices to be cheaper than or comparable to those of Spirit on many occasions. Why would I pay $10 less for vastly inferior comfort, service, and reliability?

Moreover, the top two U.S. airlines in terms of customer satisfaction ratings – jetBlue and Southwest – are both LCCs. Ultimately, LCCs have proven that there is no inherent need to sacrifice neither the hard product (materials/physical amenities/etc.) nor the soft product (service/food/drink/etc.) for savings. Given their inferior customer satisfaction scores, it appears that some U.S.-based ULCCs still haven’t comprehended that.

What’s the difference between Basic Economy and a ULCC?

Simply put, United’s hard product is significantly superior to that of Spirit and other ULCCs. While those airlines charge for basically everything except breathing and using the bathroom, United passengers will be able to enjoy in-flight entertainment (where available), Wi-Fi (for purchase), and a normal Economy seat (even if it’s in a less-than-desirable location),. Conversely, most Spirit planes have tiny tray tables, no Wi-Fi, and the seats make me feel like I’m in a sardine can. Of course, United’s economy isn’t comparable to a day at the spa, but it’s far more comfortable than anything comparable that you’ll find on a ULCC.

Is Basic Economy worth it?

Given my desire to know that I’m getting a window seat, I probably would not choose a Basic Economy seat, although I am an admittedly rare case. Besides, the routes which United flies out of my home airport are usually pretty affordable anyway – I’ve flown both BOS-ORD and BOS-EWR for less than $100 round trip – so the cost savings don’t justify the concession I’d have to make in terms of predictability.

However, for the average person who travels light and just wants to get on the plane, then I’d say it’s absolutely worth it: you’ll get a reasonably comfortable seat, a hard product that is far better than the ULCCs, and will even get complementary food and drinks. And, most importantly, you’ll get a very good deal.

 

Calling All Bostonians: 9 non stops for less than $99 round trip

There was plenty of evidence in yesterday’s edition of Hump Day Fare Hacks that flights to Europe are staggeringly cheap right now. Equally exciting is that there are a (comparatively speaking) large number of Boston-originating domestic flights that are going for far less than usual. The craziest part of that is that – while low-cost carriers are present on this spontaneously-created list – they make up less than half of the options, meaning that legacy carriers (namely American) are offering flights for cheaper than ever before. If that’s any sign of what’s to come, that’s good news for us travelers!

Note 1: All of these fares were found through Google Flights. There are even more sub-$100 destinations if you are fine with layovers, including Ft. Lauderdale and Orlando.

Note 2: I hesitated listing Spirit Airlines flights, as – in addition to charging for pretty much everything except a seat and personal item – my plane has been delayed coming back both times I’ve flown them. However, they do offer some exceptional deals, and if you know what you’re getting into, the low price may well be worth it, although I will say that I consider jetBlue to have similarly low prices and far superior service.

 

Baltimore – Southwest Airlines – $82

Chicago (O’Hare) – American Airlines and United Airlines – $87

Cleveland – Spirit Airlines – $69

Dallas-Ft. Worth – American Airlines – $87

Detroit – Spirit Airlines – $79

New York JFK – American Airlines – $69

New York LaGuardia – American Airlines and jetBlue – $97

Washington (National) – American Airlines – $69

West Palm Beach – Spirit Airlines $89