Last updated: 12:00 PM ET, Mon November 21 2016

United’s New Basic Economy Fare Works Only Under The Right Circumstance

Do you own or do you rent?

Trust me, this has a lot to do with air travel.

There is a raging debate that has gone on for decades over the merits of renting a home vs. owning. One side points to the equity and tax writeoffs of owning a home; the other side loves the idea of not being beholden to a mortgage (nor school or land taxes) all the while having the luxury of being able to call the landlord when something goes wrong.

But, is that necessarily true?

You can bet that most smart landlords are rolling the cost of their school taxes, land taxes and even potential problems – a refrigerator breaks, a boiler bursts – into the cost of the monthly rent they charge.

My point?

That’s exactly what the airlines had been doing before introducing the concept of ancillary fees. If you don’t think a meal, a snack, those water bottles and juices and sodas, and the blankets, were all incorporated into the cost of a ticket, you’re being naïve.

Which brings us to United Airlines’ divisive announcement this week about its new basic economy fares. The cost of the ticket is on par with those from no frills airlines like Spirit, but you’re flying a legacy airline and ‘brand’ name.

Unfortunately, United’s new rules for these basic economy fares include being banned from bringing a piece of carry-on luggage unless it fits under the seat in front of you; no advance seat selection; and boarding the flight last.

Just like the renting vs. owning debate, there are merits to both sides.

Let’s face it, the idea of being told that you can’t bring your carry-on luggage and will have to check it – when in fact that’s what you were hoping to avoid – smacks further of a caste and class system among the airlines and their passengers. Frankly, it’s just not right.

Further, there’s a sense among travelers that it’s just another example of airlines finding a way to stick it to their customers with a bastardized version of the ancillary fee.

But this is a concept that could work under the right circumstances, and that’s exactly the point United is trying to make (although its method of delivering the news was totally off point, which is a whole other story). The airlines are introducing a way of doing retail business not unlike any other kind of shopping – in a nutshell, you get what you pay for, and that’s not meant in a derogatory way.

If you can only afford a $4,000 engagement ring, you’re going to buy at Zale’s, not Tiffany’s.

If you want a pricey luxury car you’re going to the Jaguar dealership, not Hyundai.

Same thing here with the airlines. If you want, and can afford, a business class seat or first-class set and all the amenities, you’ll pay for it. If you want an economy fare, you’ll purchase that. And if you want a bare-bones, basic economy fare but like the idea of flying on a United or Delta with more leg room than, say, Spirit, then you’ll forgo the idea of not being able to board with a full carry-on bag.

We are a society that takes change in very small doses, and we are especially hesitant to begin paying for something – if not in actual dollars than in inconvenience – that we have been perpetually accustomed to not paying for.

So under the right circumstances – the right circumstances – the plan will work for some.

And not for others.

And that’s OK.

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