Random seat, no bag, last to board: the world’s worst airline ticket has landed

Canadian low-cost airline WestJet's new ultra-basic ticket doesn't even come with a hand luggage allowance
Canadian low-cost airline WestJet's new ultra-basic ticket doesn't even come with a hand luggage allowance - getty

This month a Canadian low-cost airline unveiled a new “no frills” ultra basic ticket. Although on closer inspection, “no frills” feels rather generous. This ticket is so stripped back there is nothing to even embellish with frills. It is a brown rag, tied loosely around the crotch. It gives access to the plane, and little else.

While few British holidaymakers will fly with WestJet any time soon, the new ultra basic ticket is significant in that it is, by my reckoning, the most rudimentary plane ticket ever sold (going just a notch further than JetBlue’s most basic ticket). And it could well indicate the beginning of a wider trend.

So what do you get, exactly, with an ultra basic ticket? Hand luggage is not allowed, although one small personal item, such as a camera bag, pet carrier or sports ball is permitted. There is also no flexibility, meaning you cannot change your booking or cancel after 24 hours – not even for a fee.

WestJet's new ticket gives access to the plane, and little else
WestJet's new ticket gives access to the plane, and little else - getty

But wait, there’s more. Or rather, less. Selecting your seat will cost you more than usual. If you don’t pay, you’ll automatically be given a seat at the back of the plane. You will receive no points, nor rewards. Adding a check-in bag also costs more than usual. And finally, to rub salt in the wound, you will be the last to board the plane, while the seated passengers chant “shame” as you skulk, head bowed, clutching a basketball, to row 32.

Fine, we took some creative licence with that last bit. But other than the privilege of travelling with your emotional support pet or GoPro, and that 24-hour cancellation window, you really aren’t getting much. But at what price?

We looked at a flight from Vancouver to Toronto, departing on Wednesday June 19. The Econo ticket cost $330.18 Canadian Dollars, EconoFlex (with flexibility, seat selection and a check-in bag) was C$393.18, and the UltraBasic fare came in at C$288.18. Other tickets we checked offered similar savings of around 12 per cent, which is not to be sniffed at. WestJet argue they are simply offering passengers more choice.

“We are committed to air travel affordability, and UltraBasic is an innovative cost-effective solution that strengthens WestJet’s ability to offer guests budget-friendly airfares to more destinations,” said John Weatherill, WestJet’s group executive vice-president and chief commercial officer.

Innovative, certainly. But the question, surely, is: who on Earth is going to actually book this ticket? People travelling between two homes would presumably be happy to cough up for the glamour of Economy, day-tripping execs travelling to a meeting or conference will surely bag the highest available fare on expenses. So really we’re looking at young people travelling home, perhaps? Care-free budget travellers taking a short trip with zero belongings in tow? Unhappy people, leaving their sorry existence behind?

WestJet's cheapest ticket from Vancouver to Toronto costs just $288 CAD
WestJet's cheapest ticket from Vancouver to Toronto costs just C$288 - getty

Some cynics might argue that the ticket is not designed to be booked and enjoyed in its raw form, but is there to catch out passengers who didn’t read the smallprint (thus scooping up add-ons at inflated rates). Others might say it is nothing more than a way of lowering the baseline fare which pulls through on flight comparison sites, teasing passengers into beginning a booking journey with the airline, and tempting them with a better economy ticket further down the line. Those pesky cynics.

In the US, the winds appear to be moving in the opposite direction. President Biden has made it his mission to clamp down on so-called “junk fees”. On April 24, the Transportation Department announced that all airlines and agents must disclose the exact additional charges for baggage, cancellation and changes at the point where the flight price is first quoted. The UK Department for Business and Trade has also drafted legislation banning hidden “drip fees” across all businesses, although hasn’t gone as far as demanding airlines to list optional extras like seat selection or luggage.

I suspect Wizz, easyJet and Ryanair will be keeping a close eye on whether WestJet’s bottom-of-the-barrel tickets sell. These airlines have mastered the art of getting bums on flights at low prices, and then charging for add-ons like printing a boarding pass (£20 with Ryanair) or changing the name on a ticket (£50 with Wizz).

If there’s precedent that it is profitable to strip down a ticket even further, right to its quivering marrow core, you can be sure that the “ultra basic” fare will soon be making its way across the Atlantic, too.