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Gate Service Fees: Another Basic Economy Caveat

There are many reasons to revile the Basic Economy fares now offered by the Big Three airlines. They’re cheap, sure. But they’re also punishingly bereft of basic amenities, which must be purchased at additional expense.

So nasty is Basic Economy that Delta President Glen Hauenstein acknowledged in this week’s earnings call with industry analysts that most travelers would avoid it “when they see exactly what it is.” That’s a bold statement that raises several questions about the product.

Question one: If Basic Economy is so undesirable, why are the airlines adopting it? The airlines of course claim it’s all about offering consumers more choices. A more cynical take is that Basic Economy is nothing more than a clever way of raising the average price of coach: Basic gradually becomes the new entry-level fare, allowing the airlines to charge a premium for regular coach.

Another concern is travelers’ ability to “see exactly what it is.” While the airlines make a point of covering Basic Economy’s restrictions in their terms and conditions, it’s clear that many travelers don’t know what is and isn’t included with the stripped-down fares.

So-called “gate service fees” for bags are a case in point. A standard condition of Basic Economy is the carry-on bag restriction: Passengers are limited to a single “personal item,” and are prohibited from using the overhead bins. That effectively forces Basic Economy customers to pay extra to check normal-sized bags. If that weren’t nasty enough, American and United also charge a $25 gate service fee for anyone who makes the mistake of arriving at the gate with a full-sized bag.

That’s a mistake only to be made by someone who’s unaware of the harsh bag penalties. Technically, the consumer has no cause for complaint since the fees are published on the airlines’ websites. But as a practical matter, keeping abreast of the Basic Economy restrictions and fees, especially the more esoteric ones like the gate service fee, is difficult at best. A cynic might even suggest that the airlines designed the fares that way.

Basic Economy fares are a caveat emptor.

Reader Reality Check

Are you a fan of Basic Economy? Are you aware of all the trade-offs the low fare requires?

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After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.

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