As value-added costs of flying increase (hello, baggage charges and in some case, even carry-on charges), airlines are marketing even more no-frills ways of flying.
The latest example to hit the airwaves is the addition of a class below even economy. Known colloquially as “economy minus,” it’s getting, well, pretty much the type of reception that could be expected. Which is to say, lukewarm-minus.
“Already offered by discount carriers and one major, Delta Air Lines, the product category is likely to intensify what critics call the industry’s race to the bottom, as airlines cut amenities and services in order to satisfy bargain-hungry passengers and boost profits,” wrote Christopher Elliott for Fortune. “America’s other legacy carriers, American Airlines and United Airlines, say they’re on the verge of introducing their own version of a ‘basic’ economy fare.”
Economy-minus is largely about space. Today’s standard economy class seats offer at least 30 inches of “pitch,” or legroom. They also come with a small snack, a soft drink and the ability to stow one carry-on bag for free. One class level down is expected to offer less space, no snacks and no free carry on, and will eliminate any options of upgrading to a better class or possibilities of getting a refund (even with a fee) for an unused seat.
Some airlines are maintaining that customers want options such as this in order to get the most rock-bottom airfare prices, and that allowing them to choose the amenities they want rather than having them added to the fare cost automatically is a good thing.
“It’s popular in that it gives customers who are price sensitive, but not concerned with seat choice, exactly what they are looking for,” Anthony Black, a Delta spokesman, told Fortune. “Customers enjoy knowing with Delta Basic Economy they’re getting a competitive price, free sodas and coffee, snacks, movies, SkyMiles and Delta’s excellent operational service.”
It’s an effort by the so-called “legacy” carriers to compete with the ultra-low-cost carriers entering the airline market. Airlines say they’re giving travelers what they want: a YouGov survey conducted several years ago found that 42 percent of airline travelers said they would be very likely or somewhat likely to book a seat with less legroom if it means getting a cheap fare.
Critics include safety experts, who say the smaller seats make it harder to evacuate in the event of an emergency. Currently, federal law does not regulate airline seat sizes, but mandates that they must be large enough so passengers can evacuate in 90 seconds or less with half of the exits blocked. Paul Hudson, president of the 50,000-member Flyersrights.org, told the Los Angeles Times that his organization is urging the FAA to adopt airline seat standards that require seats be at least 18 inches wide, with a pitch of at least 35 inches. Spirit Airlines offers some of the smallest seats in the industry, with a width of 17.75 inches and a pitch of only 28 inches.
“It’s a real problem,” Hudson said. “It has gone beyond being a comfort issue to being a safety issue.”