The New Realities of Air Travel in America

Basic Economy Everywhere

American, Delta, and United have already adopted the "basic economy" fare option, at least on some routes. The idea is that the airfare covers only your seat; everything else is extra, and the ticket is completely non-changeable and nonrefundable. It's likely that the big three will slowly roll out basic economy systemwide in the next year or two. So that sets the standard for the U.S. Nonconformist Southwest and the niche lines haven't indicated any changes yet.

Basic economy is also coming to intercontinental routes. Yes, the only transatlantic legacy line to adopt "basic economy" pricing so far is the relatively small and obscure TAP Portugal, but it's coming. Every week you see an announcement or two of new transatlantic services by Norwegian, WOW, and newcomer Lift, and the only way the legacy lines have figured out to compete is to join them in the race to the bottom. Look for them to do just that—more likely next year, rather than this, but they'll do it.

The takeaway: If you're willing to forego inflight meals and beverages, a seat assignment before boarding, traveling with other members of a group, a checked bag, and maybe even a bag in the overhead bin, you may pay less than before. Overall, however, if you want to travel like a real person, you'll probably have to pay more. That shouldn't surprise you.

More Electronics Muddle

Britain has joined the U.S. in limiting carry-on electronics larger than smart phones for travelers who board at some airports in the Middle east, although the lists aren't identical. Now there's talk about all U.S.-bound flights from Europe banning electronics in the cabin as well.

The takeaway here is that if you want to use a laptop, tablet, or e-reader, you can't fly nonstop from any of those restricted airports to the U.S. or the U.K. You must either forego your device entirely by checking it (and maybe having it stolen or damaged) or avoid nonstops between a restricted airport and a connection point. And the choice of connection points might well shrink.

The big three Gulf lines have decided to ease the pain by offering "loaner" tablets or laptops for use onboard. But, as you might have guessed, only business- and first-class travelers enjoy that service: If you're in the cattle car, you're stuck with what the airline's IFE offers or a paperback.

Invasive Data Search

Federal agents at several U.S. airports have demanded that some incoming travelers open their smart phones, tablets, and laptops—not just physically open them, but open the contents and data—to inspection. Bipartisan bill proposals in both the Senate and House seek to outlaw such searches as violations of the Fourth Amendment, but who knows how any such bills will fare in today's divided Congress.

The takeaway here is scary. To be safe, you should avoid storing any sensitive information on your smart device(s) and instead save the files to a removable medium or in the cloud. If you normally keep a lot of sensitive information on your portable device, maybe you should buy a cheap notebook or phone for use outside the U.S.

Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuses every day at SmarterTravel.

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