February 17, 2020

Flying Separately While Flying United

On a recent flight from Los Angeles to Houston (and then on to Philadelphia) on United Airlines, we booked three economy seats for myself, my husband and our young adult son, Danny, who has developmental disabilities. Although the three seats were shown seated together the night before our flight, by the time we got to LAX, they had reassigned us to three middle seats, all in separate rows

At 22, Danny is a good flier from years of experience but he nevertheless needs one of his parents seated next to him in order to prevent drinks, magazines, socks, etc. flying in every direction.He also likes to whistle, hum and say his favorite words over and over again. Although it took some time, and we were practically the last ones to board, the United gate staff were able to upgrade one passenger, and give us two seats together at the back of the plane, with the other seat rows away. They even reserved some carry-on space for us, and were very helpful in getting us on and off the plane.

In a sense, getting seated apart from each other was just a dress rehearsal for what will start to happen in January, when United begins to roll out their new “Basic Economy fares” which will be their new lowest prices, and carry with them a number of unpleasant, and penny-pinching elements, including no pre-assigned seats, Carry-on bags will be limited to one small personal item that can fit under the seat, MileagePlus program members will earn redeemable award miles; however they will not earn Premier qualifying credit (miles, segments, or dollars), no lifetime miles, and these Basic Economy customers will board in the last boarding group.

What this effectively means is that families with younger children, or older children/adults with special needs will be unable to take advantage of these lower fares. It also means that older adults (such as those with Alzheimer’s) who need a companion next to them during a flight will also be unable to access these lower fares. This seems highly discriminatory, especially for those with special needs, who are very likely to be living on lower, often fixed incomes.

This is all part of the airlines rush to the “race to the bottom” as they dream up new ways to nickel and dime their customers to optimize every last penny of profits. Following the lead of so-called “no frills” airlines such as Spirit and Allegiant Air, where everyone has to pay extra for an assigned seat, the larger airlines, starting with Delta and now United, have shown that the bar is getting placed lower and lower in terms of customer service in the coach section of the plane. American, the largest airline plans to launch its own Basic Economy fares with reduced service levels early next year, but has yet to spell out all the details.

I recently read a blog post from a 20-something who crossed the country, from California to NY, via Amtrak, and all the wonderful sights and experiences he had along the way. With prices starting as low as $278, it’s beginning to look like a better option all the time. All aboard!

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