United Airlines spin: awful “Basic Economy” means “more choice”

FILE - In this Thursday, Jan. 17, 2013 file photo, a United Airlines Boeing 787 is parked at Narita international airport in Narita, east of Tokyo. United Airlines is getting its 787s back in the air. The planes are returning after being grounded for four months by the federal government because of smoldering batteries on 787s owned by other airlines. The incidents included an emergency landing of one plane, and a fire on another. The incidents never caused any serious injuries. But the January grounding embarrassed Boeing, which makes the 787, and disrupted schedules at the eight airlines that were flying the planes. United's first 787 flight was scheduled for 11 a.m. Monday, May 20, 2013 from Houston to Chicago. (AP Photo/Kyodo News, File) JAPAN OUT, MANDATORY CREDIT

United Airlines announced Basic Economy, a new class of travel that lets you pay less and suffer more. In their press release, it sounds like a win for travelers, but as a frequent traveler, I predict a very different outcome. And it raises a question: where are the limits of a PR person’s job of making things sound better?

Here’s how United describes the new class of service in their press release:

United Sets Course To Be Best Airline For Employees, Customers, and Investors

Introduces further choice for customers with new Basic Economy fares

To further meet customers’ needs and provide more options to price-sensitive travelers, the company announced the introduction of Basic Economy fares. This new offering provides customers the option of paying the lowest fares to their destinations, while still receiving the same standard economy experience, including food, beverage, Wi-Fi and personal device entertainment, with a few key differences. Customers who choose Basic Economy will be assigned seats on the day of departure, be assigned to boarding group five and be permitted only one personal carry-on item that must fit under the seat. The new offering provides the added benefit for customers and employees of simplifying the boarding process, as fewer customers will bring overhead bags on board. Complete details on Basic Economy can be found at united.com/basiceconomy.

“Customers have told us that they want more choice and Basic Economy delivers just that,” said Julia Haywood, executive vice president and chief commercial officer. “By offering low fares while also offering the experience of traveling on our outstanding network, with a variety of onboard amenities and great customer service, we are giving our customers an additional travel option from what United offers today.”

What if this press release told the truth?

If you travel, you know what it means when an airline talks about “choice.” It means removing taking away things that you used to count on (remember legroom, free in-flight meals, and free checked luggage?), and then making you pay to get them back.

Instead of emphasizing what you still get (“a seat on one of our planes, with the ability to pay for slow WiFi and unpalatable snacks”), imagine if they had written this statement to clarify what the basic economy customer is losing. Here’s how it would read:

United Airlines lets customers pay less to get less

With its new Basic Economy fares, United introduces a new class of service. If you buy one of these tickets, you get no space in the overhead bin, no choice of seat (you’ll probably end up in a middle seat), you can’t sit with your family, and you’ll get no credit towards frequent flyer status levels. And to make sure everyone else knows you’re a cheapskate, you’ll board last, after everyone else.

“We needed to find new ways to profit,” said Faceless Airline Executive. “This new status level allows us to raise fares for the same old coach seats, while still sucking people in with low fares that appear on sites like Orbitz and Expedia. When clueless people show up at the gate with their rollaboards, they’ll have to pay to check them. We did the math — we’ll end up profiting anyway, because people who pick the lowest fares aren’t paying close attention.”

Get ready for unintended consequences

Choice requires knowledge. Anyone who’s been surprised to find out what their car insurance, mobile phone plan, or warranty doesn’t cover has realized this. If United were really making it easy for people to choose to save money, this program would be fine. But these fares are for suckers who aren’t paying close attention. As a frequent traveler, here’s what I expect to happen:

  • Frequent business travelers will have fights with their companies about why they can’t take the lowest fare. This problem will become worse because there are no free status-based upgrades from Basic Economy seats.
  • People buying tickets on sites like Expedia and Orbitz will get lured into buying these fares and not realize that they’ll get no seat assignment and no bin space.
  • Many of these basic economy buyers will be inexperienced travelers who didn’t realize what they weren’t getting. They’ll show up at the gate with their carryon bags and an expectation to sit with their families. They’ll board last with their middle-seat boarding passes and pathetically plead with the other passengers to let them sit next to their five-year-old.
  • Gate agents, flight attendants, and the rest of us who fly will need to deal with the resulting chaos. We’ll all suffer.

What’s the role of PR in this fiasco?

Let’s be clear here: if this is the mess I expect it to be, it’s United’s management that’s to blame. But what’s your job as a PR person when management makes a mess?

You are supposed to defend them and make them look good.

In this case, that means talking about this as “choice” in the press release, rather than emphasizing the amenities that have been deleted.

This is pointless, of course. Air travel reporters have figured this out. LA Times columnist Michael Hiltzik wrote “United Airlines takes a new step to make air travel more unpleasant and more expensive.” Forbes contributor Dan Reed wrote “United Airlines’ Bare Bones Basic Economy Fares: Genius? Contemptible? Or Both?” The Economist wrote “One step closer to steerage.”

I think the PR person in this situation ought to push back. They should rein in the superlatives in the press release, like United’s “outstanding network” and “great customer service” (really?). They should make the facts clearer. And they should advise their clients and colleagues that the image of the company suffers long-term when it makes choices that create a poorer customer experience and pretend that it’s actually an improvement.

If this is your job, I sympathize. Do what you can to save your company from short-term choices that result in long-term damage.

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  1. I haven’t willingly flown United since 1987. But I’ve been stuck with the airline when I flew for business–I worked for the government and had little choice because of city-pair fares. I have yet to have a positive experience with United so I won’t be fooled. But you’re right that others will.

  2. It makes sense that United would be first to do this. I flew Continental for years and was so upset when the two airlines “merged” (meaning United took over Continental despite any claims to the contrary). I’ve talked with several flight attendants who worked for Continental and they tell me working for United is a nightmare. Now United is making flying more of a nightmare for passengers. I’ll bet they become the first airline to implement those horrible “standing” seats first proposed by Airbus, Ryannair and others in 2012.http://www.cnn.com/2014/07/10/travel/standing-cabin-plane-study/

  3. Though not in the airline business, I’ve been that PR person. I pushed back and won for awhile, then eventually lost the argument and my job. Now that company writes in this exact style, with each release using old-school, BS language and plenty of “message crafting.”
    And why do PR folks continue to write “announced” or “today announced” when the release is clearly an announcement? It’s like they have a Town Crier standing on the steps of corporate headquarters and the release is the account of how it all happened. How about you just get to the information?

    1. I concur and am available to consult with United’s PR staff (i.e. push back). Sounds like they could use a little internal muscle 😉

  4. Hi Josh,

    I bought your book and use it to improve my communication. As a result, I try to read everything with a critical eye and so have a question on your article; you wrote:

    “In their press release, it sounds like a win for travelers, but as a frequent traveler, I predict a *very* different outcome.”

    Is *very* a weasel word in this context? According to what I understand it is, but am curious to know if there’s a place for adding ‘spice’ to what we write?