Basic Economy Is Anything But Basic

a woman walking in an airplane

Buying an airline ticket is not an easy task.  Customers face a number of choices that go beyond price and schedule.  The steady increase of low-cost carriers competing on traditional routes means customers have many products to choose from.  Don’t care which seat you get?  Southwest might be a good fit.  Same with Spirit, but only if you don’t have a checked bag.  Southwest will let it fly for free, Spirit not so much.

The Big 3, American, Delta and United have kept their ticket offerings fairly static over the last decade.  Sure, they started charging for seat assignments and increased fees for checked bags.  But, for the most part, price was the biggest differentiation.

Basic Economy is changing that.  The Big 3 decided that they need to compete on price with the likes of Spirit, Frontier and Allegiant.  To do so, they’re creating an “airline within an airplane’, essentially selling two different products on the same plane.  But, they’re not all offering the exact same Basic Economy product.  And, that’s bound to lead to more customer confusion.  Spirit is consistently one of the leaders in the number of DOT complaints, likely due to the number of different fees they charge.

United and American Airlines are in the process of rolling out their Basic Economy product.  Delta is already well under way, selling it in many markets.  Here’s a brief look at what each of the Big 3 offer (or intend to offer) as Basic Economy:

Seat Assignments

All 3 airlines are pretty consistent here.  You won’t receive a seat assignment ahead of time.  There’s a bit of variation here, in that Delta advertises it may not assign a seat you arrive at the gate.  American says they’ll assign at check-in, but we’ll have to see how that’s implemented.  American says it will also do their best to seat children with at least one parent, but there are no guarantees. Planes are full and most tickets coming with the privilege of selecting a seat at time of purchase.  Thus, it would be wrong to expect you’ll be able to sit with the rest of your party if you’re buying a Basic Economy ticket.

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Carry-On Baggage

Delta is alone in allowing a carry-on bag for all passengers who purchase a Basic Economy ticket.  United doesn’t allow a carry-on bag, period.  They do allow a personal item that fits under the seat in front of you.  American split the difference.  They allow elite members to bring on a carry-on bag.  But, if you don’t have elite status with American you don’t get a carry-on bag.

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IMPORTANT: United and American are charging an extra fee if you purchase a Basic Economy ticket and show up at the gate with a carry-on bag (in AA’s case, also without elite status).  I suspect this is going to be a dicey one unless they do a great job communicating this fee.

Elite-Qualifying Miles And Upgrades

The 3 carriers all agree on upgrades.  Elite members won’t be eligible for complimentary upgrades to domestic first/business class.  They all award redeemable miles, but elite-qualifying miles are a different subject.

Delta will award you full MQM (Medallion Qualification Miles) on Basic Economy tickets.  United won’t give you any.  American splits the difference by awarding them at 50% of the normal amount.

What Happens When There’s Trouble?

American Airlines opened a new Pandora’s box when they rolled out their version of Basic Economy.  View From The Wing notes that Basic Economy passengers won’t be entitled to the same rebooking paths as folks who bought a standard ticket:

Update: American has now confirmed to me that basic economy customers will not be re-accommodated on other airlines, and will be at the bottom of the list for automatic re-accommodation as well. However basic economy “B” inventory will not need to be available in order to be moved onto another flight.

That’s going to make it very tough for business travelers to rely on these fares.  The big downside to Spirit or Frontier for road warriors is the lack of backup flights when something goes wrong.  They also don’t have interline agreements with other airlines to assist when things go wrong.  American has specifically defined what they will (and won’t) do during irregular operations for Basic Economy customers.  United and Delta haven’t been as public about irregular operations, though they may treat those folks differently.

The Final Two Pennies

Basic Economy represents the next phase of “buyer beware” when booking an airline ticket.  There are plenty of pitfalls when purchasing these tickets.

Experienced frequent travelers are concerned.  United Airlines members have been discussing these changes for months, while American Airlines members are just starting to gnash their teeth about the recent announcement.

Once United and American have rolled these fares out, we’ll have a better idea of how much cheaper these fares generally are.  In some cases, it could be substantial.  But, it’s unlikely to be that way across the board.  Make sure you know what you’re buying before you click “purchase”.  And, always remember you have 24 hours to change your mind.