We can either fight over the armrest, or fight the corporations for some basic respect.
I believe all folks of reason can agree with me when I say that airline travel can be abysmal — and that there is no reason it has to be as terrible as it is. Part of this is just straight class warfare.
Financiers, "Real Housewives"cast members — at least, the ones not fronting about their economic status — and other wealthy people hardly fly commercial, and TSA PreCheck and Clear function as the airport travel equivalent of VIP access — maybe even bottle service depending on the airport.
But like you, I don’t have it like that. So, I fly commercial.
In my years of crippling student loan debt, I also missed the wholesale transformation of major airports into something resembling the line outside of the club, and didn't realize that slipping $100 to the man in D.C. lets you cut to the front of the line.
And, once you're there, I long for the days of officious bouncers at high-end clubs. Thank you for your service, TSA staffers, but a few of your co-workers are clearly not used to having any power when off the clock and thus turn into mini-tyrants on it and speak to flyers like their personal minions. I know autocratic leadership is all the rage in America and various parts abroad, but settle yourselves.
(While I have everyone’s attention, I beg of you: please stop turning every security checkpoint into a bonus video to Solange’s “Don’t Touch My Hair” starring far too many of my homegirls.)
Then, when it comes to what goes down on the plane, must I be treated like I am lucky to not be sitting next to my luggage at the bottom if I don’t pay top dollar? That is what a basic economy seat feels like.
I found out by accident that if your desire to fly is centered on having the most uncomfortable experience possible, choose Basic Economy.
Again, forgive me; I’m only flying more frequently now for work, but when taking a sort of leisurely trip back home — how leisurely can it be involving family dynamics? — I made the mistake of choosing in a panic. I was rushing. I was on an app. I chose the cheapest ticket without reading carefully. Insert several excuses here. I didn’t know. I swear I didn’t know.
For some reason, it always costs more for me to fly to Houston from New York than it does from other cities. So, I’m used to a certain price point, which this unintentionally uncomfortable flight fit within.
I found it odd, purchasing the ticket, that I didn’t get to pick my seat the way I usually do — but figured I'd get the chance to fix that a day or two before the flight, if not the day of (depending on the person at the gate and their stress levels) so I thought nothing of it.
I had no clue that my typical carrier to Houston, United Airlines (R.I.P. Continental), along with American, had joined Delta in 2017 to offer the option called “basic economy.” Apparently, they are trying to compete with cheaper airlines such as Spirit and Frontier.
I’ve never flown either, but I am familiar with Southwest Airlines, which takes a WWE Royal Rumble-like approach to flight seating. But you know what you get when you fly with those airlines: I recommend two Our Fathers, queuing up a few Beyoncé uptempos and taking your chances.
But now the airlines that are supposed to be the One Directions to Southwest and Spirit's O-Towns (no shade, they’ve aged very well, as evidenced by post-reunion footage) are acting like they’re a bus in the sky you best get your broke self to the back of.
When I was informed that I could not change my seat without paying a fee that screamed “sucker,” I sat in a seat that felt oddly smaller than I’m used to. I know now that is by design. Allegedly, Basic Economy is “no frills” because you get a seat and those Biscotti crackers, but you sit wherever they decide to place you, you can’t use the overhead bin, you board last, you can’t change the ticket, there are no refunds and you'd better only have one carry on because they will check for it and check you if you don’t honor the code.
I only enjoy the middle if I’m singing an Aaliyah song, but I will be fine with sitting in the middle if need be. But why was the seat so small? And why didn't they tell me that I could have charged my phone just two rows away if I had loved myself enough to spend more money to be regular-economy-broke versus broke-broke. (Plus I swear the flight attendant acted like I didn’t deserve that water without ice I asked for. )
I’m frankly surprised they let me pee on that flight.
There is now content related to how to “survive” Basic Economy flights — which, if survivability is an issue, they're more stripped down than they're advertising — or, if nothing else, make them less miserable.
But Basic Economy calls for nothing short of a revolt. The system is rigged, and not to get all Bernie Sanders about it, but we might need a revolution.
Far be it from me to tell airline companies what to do, but I have a few suggestions. Instead of finding new ways to cram people into flights by making them pay for common courtesies, do… anything other than that. And please, please, stop using “basic economy.” Economy is basic enough, thank you very much. If I wanted to feel like I was on the bus — not that there’s anything wrong with that — I’d ride it.
And everyone else, consider yourselves warned. The more basic economy seats available on a flight, the less regular economy ones are on there — and the more they can charge you for them. We're all in this together, and we can either fight over the armrest or fight the corporations for some basic respect.
Michael Arceneaux is the author of the book "I Can't Date Jesus" (July 2018, Atria Books).
This piece was first published by NBC Think.
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