United Airlines is the most vaccinated airline. That doesn’t make them the most health-friendly airline during the pandemic. Passengers spend more time with other passengers, both in the gate area and on board, than they do with employees.
Both United and American Airlines sell basic economy tickets which are non-changeable. If you get sick and do not fly you lose all value of your ticket. That’s a huge incentive to fly sick. (Delta makes basic economy tickets changeable through December 31, 2021.)
You don’t have to buy a basic economy ticket. For most other domestic tickets and international tickets originating in the U.S. change fees no longer apply, though you’ll still pay any difference in fare to reschedule your trip. That helps make it easier to decide not to fly when you’re sick, which isn’t just good for you but for all the passengers around you that you won’t spread illnesses to.
But choosing to buy a changeable ticket, and avoiding basic economy, doesn’t prevent you from getting sick from other people. And flying an airline that incentivizes other passengers to fly sick by selling tickets that lose all value if they don’t puts you in an environment more likely to have sick people.
Basic economy is how airlines separate out price conscious leisure travelers from price-insensitive business travelers. They want to sell to both – and sell the same seats to both – while making sure they don’t sell a ticket to a business traveler for less than they’re willing to pay. Airlines used to use advantage purchase requirements and Saturday night stays to segment these customers, but those stopped working when low cost carriers weren’t imposing these requirements and legacy airlines had to stop as well to compete. So basic economy restrictions became the new Saturday night stay.
Basic economy restrictions vary. United doesn’t permit bringing on a full-sized carry on bag, or checking in online for basic customers who aren’t checking a bag. American doesn’t offer any credit towards elite status on these fares. Advance seat assignments either aren’t allowed, or comes at a fee. That’s all fair, but the no changes restriction is problematic from a public health standpoint.
And customers who are concerned about their health will want to consider whether to fly an airline that surrounds them with passengers who cannot change their tickets even when they get sick.
Southwest Airlines, of course, doesn’t sell basic economy tickets. All Southwest Airlines tickets were changeable without a fee even before United Airlines and then other U.S. carriers dropped change fees last year. That may make Southwest the preferred carrier for passengers that don’t want to get sick when they fly.