The discount applies in both economy and business class...

After years of creating economy experiences so miserable, or basic, you had to pay up just to curate a realistic travel journey, airlines are turning their sights to business class as the next frontier for unbundled fares. And yes, it’s an attempt to extract more cash out of your wallet.

But there are many solid arguments for how the process may backfire entirely, while also raising the question of why airlines, on the brink of collapse, would use this time to make their most profitable products worse, and less enjoyable to customers?

They’re designed to get more money out of your wallet, but with a price difference sometimes over $1000 just for perks like lounge access, many people may take to the terminal again, and put that money elsewhere.

Unbundling Business Class

The concept of unbundling business class isn’t entirely flawed, but what’s coming along in the package matters, as does the flexibility in doing so. When Finnair removed a checked baggage allowance and cancellation options, it didn’t impact the actual journeys of many customers, just the trimmings.

It made business class more accessible in terms of pricing, but may have also shot the airline in the foot. Less price sensitive business travelers don’t often check their bags, so it actually gave them a way to buy up to business class comfort for less, which is unlikely to be what Finnair hoped for.

Sure, many travelers need the flexibility which comes from higher priced tickets, but for those that don’t, they’re able to experience the product for less money than before.

Qatar Removes Lounge Access

But when Qatar Airways announced that its new fare structures will remove lounge access and seat assignments from ‘classic’ business class fares, it became the largest leap to date in giving customers a less enjoyable travel experience, rather than fewer bags to bring along.

Hopes that it would create lower fares, much like Finnair, have been unfounded thus far, but there’s still time. For now, it means customers are seeing price differences of between $300-$3000, just to enjoy an airport lounge and select a seat, with the lowest ‘classic’ fares hovering right where they were before, but sans lounge access.

That’s going to make many fans of the brand – of which there are many – look elsewhere for better options which include lounge access at the same price, or actually buy down to the degraded experience, rather than buy up. After all, terminals aren’t so bad these days.

What About Actual Choice?

Rather than simply taking things away, and creating new gulfs in pricing, why not start with a price, and allow people to customize the things they don’t need? Not just lounge access, but everything along the way?

At $300 extra, a passenger may consider the potential benefits of buying up to the old experience which was once less, but many simply will not. When they don’t the airline has only created marginal savings, while frustrating loyalists.

If you’re going to unbundle, why not give someone the option of removing lounge access for a certain price, or removing seat selection for a certain price? In other words: either unbundle things entirely, down to booze or no booze, or leave it all in one package. There’s a strong argument for the latter.

Cable Television Is A Case Study

View From The Wing used a simple and eloquent example to highlight flaws in the logic at Qatar Airways, which stem from cable television bundles. Here’s the basis of the argument.

Cable TV providers bundle ‘packages’ of channels instead of selling each channel individually because it is profit-maximizing to do so. The cost of adding another customer to a television company’s access to Fox News or ESPN is near zero, and so a bundled strategy makes sense.

The cable company might sell sports and news each for $99. Customer A would buy sports, customer B would buy news. And the cable company would generate $198.

Instead, if they bundle sports and news into a $109 package, customers get both channels at a price that’s worthwhile to each and the cable company generates $218.

Gary Leff, View From The Wing

Airlines have costs in operating lounges or granting passengers access, but many of those costs are sunk, or already there, and certainly don’t add up to $300 a passenger, per journey. The staff are already working these spaces, meals are already made, and drinks must be ordered for other passengers anyway.

Customers now also have far more choice at each juncture, thanks to emerging trends in airports from higher quality “pay as you go” lounges, to ‘chefy’ food establishments worth eating in.

Anyone flying business class is typically savvy enough with their money to say that spending $50 in the airport for a nice meal, or $100 for a terminal day room to sleep in, is better than paying $500 extra for the ticket.

Heck, if the ticket is $1000 more expensive for lounge access, some extra flexibility and seat selection, why not go buy some caviar and Dom Perignon to enjoy by the gate, or in a pay as you go loung you access for free via a credit card already inevitably in your wallet. You’re still netting out $700, overall.

Why Not Up Up Sell?

And why not try an up sell, instead of taking things away? Even in business class, some airline seats are definitely better than others. Why not charge $150 extra round trip for first come first serve claiming of those seats? That’s more revenue generated than the money that would be saved by depriving passengers of standard benefits.

Are some passengers willing to pay more for Dom Perignon in the lounge, rather than house wine? Are some willing to pay more for a pre-flight massage, or the guarantee of a private nap room?Of course. Revenues from these sort of “extra” items are likely to surpass the meager savings from taking away standard benefits.

There are a variety of ways airlines could offer upgrades along the journey to create extra revenue, rather than just take away. Delta, for example, allows customers to buy upgraded wines using miles or cash in Sky Clubs, while maintaining a solid minimum baseline of quality.

With travel in a global standstill, airport spaces are going unused, stockpiles of first class booze are collecting dust and rather than offering opportunities to elevate the journeys of loyal customers, airlines are experimenting with ways to make things worse.

Cost Savings At What Cost?

Sure, Qatar saves on lounge access it would’ve granted you, but that’s small money, and the point of these fares is, or was, to take things the other way, and generate more revenue with higher fare purchases.

If prices do drop below previous lows, It’s not necessarily bad news for travelers at all.

It’s just different, and it will create more competition among airports to best cater to all passengers in the terminal with better quality establishments. For airlines looking to squeeze a bit of extra money out of passengers, it may accomplish the exact opposite though, and they may find their customers spending money saved elsewhere.

How will unbundled business class impact your travel?

Gilbert Ott

Gilbert Ott is an ever curious traveler and one of the world's leading travel experts. His adventures take him all over the globe, often spanning over 200,000 miles a year and his travel exploits are regularly...

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16 Comments

  1. For me the most important thing is the seat, so for the same price, I would be more than happy to fly Qsuites without lounge (I have priority pass) than any other airline. As bonus, I would probably have better service and food too.

  2. I’m done with them. Used to take several trips a year on Qatar, Europe-Asia. There are many others, usually with a few £/$ price difference to choose from on the same routes. Added bonus is if you take a European carrier you don’t get up in the middle of the night to transfer. I’m a BA Gold/One World Emerald and under the new R fares, could use the ‘other’ lounge in Doha Qatar provides. I won’t, it’s crap. Finnair (great lounge), Turkish (great lounge), Swiss (OK lounge) and a few others get my vote from now. OK, I’m just one.. how many more feel the same. What a stupid policy.

  3. This is just the beginning. Best case is that as more and more airlines try to go down this path they will start generating price wars at that lower level and therefore EVENTUALLY have justifiably lower prices. Or, they may collude and price fix like the mafia. Cause some major players would need to price lower for others to be worried. But ya, as far as I’m concerned, if I have to pay the same price for less service, I’m going to fly competitors if pricing is similar.

  4. Business travellers who are employees of international companies usually use travel booking systems which force them to book the lowest reasonable fare… Even if their seniority level allows them to travel in ‘business class’, the HR policy is unlikely to allow them to charge hundreds of dollars of extra expense for a ‘full fat’ fare that allows lounge access and seat selection. Ironically, these travellers are likely to be allowed to claim meals in the airport restaurants on expenses – expect these establishments to be full of people on laptops who would otherwise be in the lounge.

  5. Absolutely ridiculous idea. The new fare such as classic business will be very unattractive to couples who will not be able to choose their seats together prior to check-in, thus running the risk of having to sit wherever there is a spare seat. Added to this, although the lounge at Doha is beautiful and vast, the quality of the food at peak times can resemble slop on a plate and the inability to sometimes have a shower whilst there due to the volume of people using the longe can leave business class passengers somewhat underwhelmed. I can’t see that many people will therefore be attracted by the new fare structure which when looking at the difference between being able to chose a seat prior to check-in and longe access or not, is simply in my view, not worth the enormous fare difference. What next? Pay to have your bags loaded?

  6. I am a frequent long-haul leisure traveller (Pre pandemic 5 or 6 trips a year), always in Business or First. I was QR Platinum for 3 years in a row but have now dropped down to basic level. I need a wheelchair in airports so, without lounge access I would just be dumped at the departure gate. If the lounge access inclusive fare was the same as the current fare then I would pay it. However, it looks as if they are keeping the basic fare at current levels. I am not prepared to be scammed into paying a lot more.

    Goodbye QR. Al Baker just doesn’t understand travellers’ requirements and motivations. This move is going to spectacularly backfire on him.

  7. Michael Welsh: Surely that’s the point, isn’t it?
    – If a couple wants to sit next to each other, they have to pay for seat selection.
    – If less people have access to the lounge, then those that do get to use it will get a better experience (quality of food improved, more shower availability) and therefore makes it more attractive to pay for?

    I’m not saying it’s a great result for customers (myself included) not willing to pay £200-£800 for a couple of hours in the lounge, or that I’m happy that it’s an INCREASE fare for the experience rather than a REDUCED rate less benefits, but surely Qatar is targeting those that ARE willing to pay?

  8. Its a wrong move by QR, you have a good product, but with unbundling, QR is loosing out to EK. Al Baker think carefully. Maintain the same pricing for Buss Class. Its should all have with lounge access and etc.
    I for once stopped flying on EK since they introduced pricing packages even for seat selections have to pay. Am a QR fan and a passenger. Just because of the pandamic, please dont go on a wild marketing strategy. Maintain your standards, longterm loyalty should be considered.

  9. So a Business Class Classic ticket from LHR to Hong Kong will cost me £1884. If i choose a Comfort ticket (which allows me access to the lounge and allows me to pre select my seat) thiswill cost me £3022.00. So £1200 to get lounge access, which I can buy anyway for just over £100 – i dont think soo. This is a serious mis-calculation by Qatar and will cost them passengers

  10. On long haul I am primarily interested in the seat, comfort and space. If I can get that cheaper then I’d be happy, but it has to be significantly cheaper, not marginal, to forego the other benefits, such as food, wine, lounge. If not then I will absolutely take my business elsewhere. I love Qatar, but their strategy is badly flawed. If you loose loyal customers, it is very hard to get them back.
    I am QF platinum, One World Emerald

  11. I don’t really care for lounges. They can be useful on a long layover for some peace and quiet, a snooze and for a phone charging point, but I find the food and drinks outside the top F lounges to generally not be that great and will normally fork out for a meal in a terminal restaurant.

    Can normally get in a lounge via AMEX, Priority Pass etc.

    This does just give me the opportunity to buy J for less when flying J which is no bad thing for my wallet.

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