Chris Barnett on Business Travel
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The Crapshoot That Is Basic Economy
Thursday, April 5, 2018 -- If you like to play the ponies, roll the bones or stand firm on 16, you'll love the U.S. legacy airlines' newest game: Basic Economy.

It's not exactly three-card monte or an airborne lotto, but it's damned close. The airlines deploying it show you the speed of air travel and dangle the remaining lure of their "full service" appeal, but you get a cheaper seat, lots of restrictions and a casino full of bait-and-switch.

But what I discovered on a United Airlines roundtrip between San Francisco and Los Angeles is that players sometimes win with Basic Economy. Not always. Okay, almost never. But much to my surprise, I won.

For openers, Basic Economy is aimed at leisure travelers who want a deal, not road warriors who want predictability and comfort. As Southwest Airlines realized 43 years ago, however, businesspeople will also put up with scrambling for an unassigned seat and scant frills--if they can save a few bucks.

With Basic Economy, you don't choose your seat. The computer selects it for you and you're stuck with it. Even if there are empty seats on the plane, you cannot switch after takeoff or even pay or cash in miles for an upgrade. Nor can you reserve two seats together to sit with a colleague, friend or relative. You forfeit that privilege.

Although rules vary by carrier, opt for Basic Economy on United (see left) and you are banned from bringing a full-size carry-on bag aboard even if it fits in the overhead compartment. The rules permit a personal bag, computer bag or anything that fits under your seat. Here, there is some wiggle room. United's MileagePlus Premier members, holders of its MileagePlus credit card or Star Alliance Gold members can carry on a full-sized bag.

However, the airline cuts no slack to passengers who have to change their itineraries for any reason. United's Basic Economy fares are nonrefundable and non-changeable.

Ticket changes are not allowed, even for Premier members, and even if you are willing to pony up the hefty $175 to rebook a reservation. While reservations can't be changed, you can get a full refund within 24 hours of buying the ticket, but only if it was purchased a week before take-off date.

Translated: You're stuck if you make a last-minute Basic Economy fare buy and your meeting gets cancelled.

United MileagePlus members, no real surprise, do not get any credit toward Premier status with a Basic Economy ticket. They do get award miles pegged to the fare price.

That's the mother lode of caveats. Is the savings really worth it? Here's what I found.

I booked an SFO to LAX roundtrip three weeks out at $112 for Basic Economy. The lowest traditional coach fare was $125. For 13 bucks, it's hardly worth choosing Basic Economy, but I chose it in the name of journalistic research.

On the 338-mile SFO-LAX outbound leg, I was assigned 23A, a window seat on a Boeing 737-700. The seat pitch was, I guesstimate, a standard, tight 31 inches. I hate window seats but, again, there was no possibility of swapping. But it wasn't all bad. For some reason, the same computer gave me priority boarding. Other than that, there was no real inconvenience.

The flight home was a totally different experience. I checked in late online and was not given a seat assignment. Then I miscalculated and arrived at LAX two hours before departure on a Friday night and ran smack into horrific congestion and crowds. Plus, United's sprawling Terminal 7 is a gauntlet if you're checking a bag. The airline, in its eternal corporate quest to save money even if it inconveniences its customers, has rolled out a "two-step" self-check-in system for luggage.

Since I didn't see a skycap outside, I went to the baggage-only drop-off counter but was told I had to check it in myself at a kiosk (step one), and then drop it off with another check-in agent. Fortunately, the United staffer who informed me of this procedure was old school and had 22 years on the job. She took pity on me and walked me through the kiosk system, which, even with her help, chewed up about seven minutes. Then, with my tagged bag, receipt for the $25 bag fee and boarding pass, I was dispatched to the bag drop-off agent (step two).

Surprisingly, that ate up another eight minutes. I never noticed it before but United, at least at LAX, does not have its own agents at the bag drop-off counter. They've outsourced the work to a ground-handling outfit called Airserve. The Airserve employees dress in blue and look like airline employees, but they move like molasses behind the bag drop-off counter. They were generally twos on a 1-to-10 customer service scale.

I was now, finally, checked in--but still had no seat assignment. I was told that would be given to me at the gate. At the gate, however, the United employee said to come back a few minutes before boarding and she would have my seat. I felt like I was flying standby on a sold-out flight.

But here's where Lady Luck smiled on this Basic Economy customer. Whether it was the agent or an algorithm, I got a boarding pass good for an aisle seat in Economy Plus, which meant four inches or so of additional legroom on the Boeing 737-900.

Had I paid retail for Economy Plus when I booked, the fare would have been $50 more for that segment. And I wouldn't have had to hang around the gate wondering if I would be stuck in a middle seat in coach with as little as 30 inches of legroom. So while I was lucky, I wouldn't say I hit the jackpot.

Of course, all airfares today are crapshoots. It's a Vegas casino without the charm. For example, United's full-fare flexible economy on the SFO-to-LAX run quoted at $441.

First class seats on the same flight? $398.

This column is Copyright 2018 by Chris Barnett. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2018 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Chris Barnett. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.