Income Inequality’s Next Frontier: The Economy Class On Airplanes

Booking an Economy ticket for a recent flight, I had a choice between paying $25 extra for a window seat and a bunch of middle seats at the back of the plane.

Weeks later, in line at security check, the ticket screener told the woman in front of me that she couldn’t have a carry-on and would have to go back to the desk to check her bag. She had chosen a “Basic Economy” ticket, which didn’t permit carry-ons. “I’ve never heard of such a thing,” she said, flustered. But it was, as the screener indicated, right there in bold letters on her ticket.

In that moment both she and I were ruminating on the personal flaws our booking decisions had laid bare. I was self-indulgent to pay $25 to sit next to a fucking window, and she was careless to not have noticed the restrictions on the ticket she bought. But together we were more than that. We occupied two poles of a decision that travelers on large airlines are increasingly being forced to make: pay less and get less, or pay more for things that used to be included.

To compete with the no-frill budget airlines like Spirit, Frontier, and WOW that started to eat into their market share, United, Delta, and American Airlines have all unrolled a ‘Basic Economy’ option in the past year that costs about $30 less than flying Economy. Similar to the budget airline model, passengers flying Basic Economy trade a lower price for boarding last, the inability to choose their own seats, and on United, not being allowed a carry-on.

If this were the end of the story it would read as an adept response to the marketplace by the biggest three airlines in America. It would be a win for the many U.S. fliers who have proven to care about cost over all other variables. And it would be a win—or at least a save—for the companies that were starting to lose their business.

But it’s not the end of the story.

In exchange for the cheaper option, all three airlines raised the price of flying Economy.

“Airline executives will be very honest. They aren’t offering Basic Economy because they want people to buy Basic Economy. They are offering it because they want you to pay up the higher fare. That’s the whole purpose of the construct,” Samuel Engel told CBS News, who serves as a leading airline consultant for the management consulting firm ICF.

Fare isn’t the only thing you now have to pay extra for as an Economy flier. Airline executives at Delta, United, and American have also repackaged a significant number of window and aisle seats, as well as seats towards the front of the section, as “Preferred Seats” that cost even more money to book. The exact number and location of ‘Preferred Seats’ varies by flight and by airline: a Delta flight from New York City to Detroit shows sixteen Preferred Seats within a much larger Economy section—window and aisle seats that cost anywhere from $36 to $60 more. Meanwhile, a United flight from Newark to Los Angeles has 58 Preferred Seats—every window, aisle, and middle seat in the entire front half of the Economy section. The seats, which used to be free with your ticket, now range from $18-29 extra.

Seating map for an upcoming United flight from Newark to Los Angeles.

Other than in name, Preferred Seats haven’t been upgraded in any way. They don’t have more cushioning or more legroom than before. They simply aren’t the worst seats on the plane. They’re ‘Preferred’ because they’re better than sitting near the bathroom. Because you get off the plane a few minutes sooner than the last people to get off the plane. That’s what makes them cost money now.

The whiff of injustice might be about more than consumer value. What was likely a level-headed business decision by these companies almost feels like a retaliatory smack for having been forced to adjust to the market at all. Maybe that’s because of the history: large airlines have spent the past decade consolidating from nine to four, raising their prices as consumers’ alternatives shrunk. Recognizing this, WOW and Spirit came on the scene—and started to succeed at the large airlines’ expense. If you were the type of person who believes in the invisible hand, this would be your proof that it—not some trust-busting government—can solve consumer problems naturally. But, again, it wasn’t enough for the big airlines to merely win some of their customers back by better serving their needs with a cheaper option. They didn’t interpret the loss as a sign of where their natural limits lied. They instead used the bleak experience that most budget airline customers will confess to as leverage to force everyone who doesn’t want it, to pay more simply because they don’t want it. And, as an ancillary benefit, any customer who feels it’s unfair how much the airline is now charging them to sit in a not-bad seat in Economy is compelled to internalize the complaint as their own failing. Because, after all, there is a cheaper option.

Against a backdrop of growing income inequality, the flight parallel is poetic: like the Economy Class, the middle class is shriveling. A widening gulf of affordability is reflected in an airplane seating map. A few large companies continue to track profits as what used to be a baseline is harder for people to attain.

Yet it makes the intersection all too real: one more basic, decent thing is a little more out of reach than it used to be—a thing that’s being paid for, in the majority of cases, with money from a salary that’s increasingly struggling to afford other basic decent things.

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