Airlines are getting their feet in our doors

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“American and United are rolling out a stripped-down new [fare] class called Basic Economy” (Schwartz, 2017). And it’s providing foot-in-the-door examples for psychology instructors who are ready to talk about something other than safe-driving signs (Freedman & Fraser, 1966).  

With American Airlines’ Basic Economy ticket class, I’m not allowed to use the overhead bins, I can’t choose a seat until I check-in (guaranteeing I’ll be in middle-seat-landia and probably not sitting with my travel companions), I have no possibility of a free upgrade, I can’t change my flight, and I board in the last group (big deal; I can’t put a bag in the overhead bin anyway).

“’That’s the experience on a ultra-low-cost carrier,’ said Rajeev Lalwani, an airline industry analyst with

Morgan Stanley. As the legacy airlines introduce similar no-frills offerings to hold off upstarts like Spirit, he said, ‘part of the idea is to get folks to upgrade to premium economy and collect fees’” (Schwartz, 2017). That’s the foot-in-the-door: get customers to commit to the lower fare first, and then dangle the next highest fare as a better alternative.


I went to the American Airlines website to see how this played out in real time. I chose a Dallas to Tampa roundtrip scheduled for three weeks from now. American gave me my ticket class options. Clicking on the “Basic Economy” link generated a helpful pop-up. I love the red Xs on the blah-grey background. I don’t think American really wants me to choose this fare.

American Airlines screenshot: Basic Economy fare restrictions


Once I select the $317 “basic economy” fare – and getting pretty close to being mentally committed to flying American for this trip – I get another helpful pop-up. I can keep my red-fonted “Lowest fare.” Or For just an extra $20, I can have the green-fonted “Good value with benefits” fare and all of these green-checkmarked perks! I need to either “accept restrictions” for that lowest fare (and be treated like a teenager on “restriction”?) or “move to main cabin” (where I can be treated like an adult?).

American Airlines screenshot:Basic Economy fare vs. main cabin fare

After I “Accept restrictions,” it’s still not too late for me to move to the main cabin! I can keep my red Xs or I can upgrade to bullet points. It’s just another $20… I might not have been willing to pay $337 to fly roundtrip Dallas to Tampa, but once I’ve said okay to that $317 foot in the door, it’s not that hard to say okay to an extra $20.

American Airlines screenshot:Trip summary screen

The “ultra-low-cost” carriers have structured their fees to take advantage of foot-in-the-door, too. Where do you think American and United got the idea? That same trip from Dallas to Tampa would cost $177.18 on Spirit Airlines. That means no overhead bin use, no seat assignment until I get to the airport, and Spirit puts me in whatever seat they’d like, and I can’t print a boarding pass at the airport without paying a fee – pretty much the same deal I got with red-X Basic Economy fare on American, minus the boarding pass print fee. After my next click toward purchasing a ticket, Spirit, in a pop-up, says it is willing to give me all of those perks for $152. If I accept it, my total cost for this trip is now $329.18. For those who have not been paying attention, that’s just $7.22 less than American’s “good value with benefits” fare. If I don’t accept it, I can still go “à la carte” on the fees. I have already decided to buy the ticket. I’m ready to purchase it. All I have to do is click the huge red “ADD TO CART” button to get all of those things that make air travel a little more humane. Or I can click the small print link and choose my options later.

Spirit Airline pop-up: Add on extras for one fee

Once I’ve mentally committed to purchasing a ticket and the airline has their foot in my door, the door is cracked to let in the for-a-fee add-ons. And as a psychologist there isn’t much I can do but say, “I see what you did there.” 



Freedman, J. L., & Fraser, S. C. (1966). Compliance without pressure: The foot-in-the-door technique. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 4(2), 195-202. doi:10.1037/h0023552

Schwartz, N. D. (2017, May 28). Route to air travel discomfort starts on Wall Street. Retrieved from

About the Author
Sue Frantz has taught psychology since 1992. She has served on several APA boards and committees, and was proud to serve the members of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology as their 2018 president. In 2013, she was the inaugural recipient of the APA award for Excellence in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning at a Two-Year College or Campus. She received in 2016 the highest award for the teaching of psychology--the Charles L. Brewer Distinguished Teaching of Psychology Award. She presents nationally and internationally on the topics of educational technology and the pedagogy of psychology. She is co-author with Doug Bernstein and Steve Chew of Teaching Psychology: A Step-by-Step Guide, 3rd ed. and is co-author with Charles Stangor on Introduction to Psychology, 4.0.