Delta Coming Under Unfair Criticism for Customer Shaming

Delta’s “basic economy fares” and their upsell offers are coming under heavy criticism.

Carriers grab your attention with a low fare but then try to sell you a roomier seat, early boarding privileges or a refundable ticket, among other extras.

A passenger rights group says Delta Air Lines has pushed the tactic to new levels by shaming travelers into buying expensive upgrades.

When you choose a basic economy fare on Delta’s website, the final page before you confirm the purchase now lists several restrictions you face if you buy the cheap ticket. It warns that you will be last to board and last to access overhead bin space. It says you will get no seat assignment, no refunds, no ticket changes, no early boarding and no stand-by travel changes.

I was on MSNBC talking about this issue yesterday morning. With a little bit of context Delta actually seems pretty reasonable here (and I’m a huge Delta SkyMiles critic overall, as regular readers know, but have to call each issue as I see them).

Delta introduced these ‘basic economy’ fares to compete against Spirit Airlines where Spirit is offering super low fares on non-stop routes Delta is flying. Spirit doesn’t offer included seat assignments, and charges myriad fees that Delta does not (like for carry on bags, and Delta still serves free soft drinks in economy even to passengers on these fares which Spirit does not). So Delta offers cheaper flights with fewer inclusions.

The fares don’t have to be limited to routes where the airline competes with Spirit, they can take their planes and mimic Spirit as well. There’s nothing wrong with that, other than the potential for customer confusion and dilution of their brand.

But that’s also why it’s important for consumers to know and understand what they’re buying since these fares are different than what you’d normally expect/get from Delta.

Spirit Airlines has some of the highest consumer complaints in the industry. Most of those complaints are said to come from people buying those tickets through online travel agencies where they don’t get the really clear disclosures Spirit offers on their website. When consumers are told in advance what to expect really clearly they’re happier with their choice.

Of course Delta would like customers to spend more on their tickets. And in fact they do, I’m told that they have a 65% upsell rate to higher fares from people who start out at basic economy. But customers need to be presented with the choice of which product to pay for.

I don’t really think there’s that much “shaming” going on when someone is alone at their computer screen buying an airline ticket. Or when their boarding group is called last. Everyone else has already boarded, so early boarders aren’t staring at you over it, and someone has to be last to board by definition – that’s always been true.

If Delta didn’t make it abundantly clear what features ‘basic economy’ fares don’t include they’d be getting hammered. We should applaud them for their dedication to transparency. And we should insist they apply it consistently across their business. Like with SkyMiles.

What does strike me as dirty pool about these fares is that elites don’t get upgrades. With Delta there’s a minimum revenue requirement on an individual trip for elite benefits, not just minimum revenue across the year to earn status.

Delta has minimum revenue requirements for elite status, so presumably customers fly on these fares are doing so only occasionally. Delta sees the customers as profitable enough to reward — just not all the time.

Delta’s elite frequent flyers need to shout from the rooftops, “I am not my fare.” I am a valued customer, or I am not, and how welcome I’m made to feel should not change between Tuesday on a full fare and Thursday on a discount one when I’m buying a ticket pretty much every week.

For the rest of customers though Delta is (for the most part) probably doing what they ought to do.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. My issue is not so much with the up-sells it’s that they are allowed to over sell flights and the people who buy tickets without seat assignments are really screwed if the flight is over sold. Personally I find it offensive that most of the major carriers are now blocking seat assignments unless you’re willing to pay for an upgraded seat. With smaller aircraft and full planes it’s a huge risk for anyone to buy a ticket without having a seat assignment in advance. The airlines know this and they are taking full advantage of it. If you don’t have status on a particular airline and you get bumped you might as well walk to your final destination otherwise prepare for a very long layover.

  2. Who decided “shaming” was the correct word to describe this coercive experience we are now treated to – regardless of whether it’s at home in front of a pc or not?

    I wholeheartedly agree with am.
    Gary am shocked you think delta or any airline should be commended for their “transparency” when actually their behaviour is nothing but psychological coercion and fear mongering !

  3. The preview in Feedly for this blog post starts with “I turned down a television appearance today on this story. They weren’t looking for my take on this story, the producer said they were looking…”

    The post that went live tells a very different story…

  4. What bugs me is that there is not an option to pay extra for a seat assignment on the basic fare. A real negative if corp policy forces you to take lowest fare on delta

  5. Ryan, can you please post a link to this site? Watched the report yesterday morning and agree with Gary…also, the host tried to imply this was yet another revenue grab by DL (and other airlines) who made hundreds of millions from these charges. However, she never acknowledged that those same airlines had been losing billions over the past couple of decades before consolidation and restructuring of domestic fee structures. All DL is doing is providing full disclosure as the DOT now requires of airlines, in a fashion customers can’t miss…as it appears they can miss when booking Spirit, or on 3rd party sites.
    As for the treatment of elites who purchase such fares, Gary does have a sound argument, but so too does DL depending upon what the additional fare cost is for an upgradeable fare. Those of us flying AC and elites in the Altitude program have become all too familiar with Tango fares that do not permit upgrading vs the $100+ Flex fares that do…and even then, these are not comp’d but require significant number of Upgrade credits.

  6. @Ryan thanks, a glitch on my end. I wrote the first draft of the post yesterday morning because I was even scheduled to do MSNBC. I was contacted by multiple media outlets on this story. Ultimately didn’t get into that distraction.

  7. I am glad to be able to pay a lower fare and get minimal services. If Delta sold me a fare without warning me that I would not get a seat assignment, would be last to board, etc., then I would be unhappy. I assume that they flag that information because they want to sell higher fares, but some of us want the information, so it seems silly to complain about it.

    Stripped down services with up-selling are common in many industries; sometimes I take the premium services. It is good to have options.

  8. I saw this on the Today Show this morning and almost threw something at the TV. The hypocrisy coming from the pax rights groups is painful. They tell anyone who listens that transparency is important, but then as soon as an airline does something that makes it a very transparent experience, they jump on them. Just incredible.

  9. The issue is full disclosure, and I think that’s what Delta’s doing here. What’s bad about that? I get it that there are some “passenger rights” groups that simply despise the LCC model (and anyone like Delta that may partially mimic it), and wish it would go away. They are really not pro-passenger. The availability of more choices is good and holds prices down in general. Look at their agendas – if their wish lists were to come true in full, fares would go up substantially, sending more people to the highways to die in car crashes.

    As an aside, I think in general the phrase “noun+shaming”needs to get on that annual list of overused/abused neologisms that get tiresome.

  10. Gary’s post is absolutely right that “it’s important for consumers to know and understand what they’re buying since these fares are different than what you’d normally expect/get from Delta.”

    The problem I have with all this is that not all the OTA and many reward travel sites don’t clearly disclose the E class restrictions, or make it so hard to find out about them that its almost impossible to find before booking. I wonder how many complaints delta get’s every day from people who accidentally book that fare on one of those sites and then find they can’t change seats or cancel for any fee. I wouldn’t ever book the fare, but I think delta.com is doing the right thing making sure customers know what they’re buying and I think OTA and other travel sites need to either not sell the fare or offer similar warnings.

  11. Agree with Gary
    Has Delta done anything wrong? No
    It’s telling pax exaclty what they are (or ar not) getting.
    Why should elites get extra benefits on a fare that expressly states there are no benefits.
    It’s quite simple: if you want benefits, pay a fare that allows benefits – that’s the way it’s going in the airline world and no amount of grizzling will stop the relentless ‘fine tuning’ of fares, be it DL, UA, AA, BA or others.
    (PS I’m a BA elite, so if I want seat selecton on BA short haul flights then I stump up the appropriate fare. Simple!)

  12. People need to stop complaining. We all know Delta sucks. If you don’t like their policies then choose another airline that will treat you better. If they want to put their customer service in the gutter that is their option. I guess it’s better that they tell you about all the things you don’t get upfront rather than surprising you with them once you get to the airport. Personally I wouldn’t give Delta a dime but I can understand why they are offering these cheap fares. What they may not realize is that there is a reason why elites don’t fly airlines like Spirit. If Delta starts to look and feel like Spirit they are going to lose the customers who really are willing to pay higher fares. No elite will want to put up with the kind of people onboard that are attracted to airlines like Spirit.

  13. I started off with a dirt cheap ticket
    but by checkout I paid 30x as much for a first class ticket on one of their 30 year old planes.
    At least this could earn me some extra miles that are near imposable to redeem on their own metal
    I was just to ashamed not too pay extra lol
    Hate being seen as a cheap no frills person of cattle
    At checkout they had in all uppercase letters that said
    go ahead you cheap fool see if we care if you have to pay more for your luggage have us lose it, have nothing to eat on board and have your blood flow cut off from being in a middle seat in the back of the bus
    Shamed totally here

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