Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Hate Basic Economy Fares? More Are Coming: Passengers may grumble, but Delta, United and American like the early results of the restriction-heavy tickets enough to expand them

The Wall Street Journal
By Scott McCartney
Aug. 9, 2017 10:40 a.m. ET

Buying airline tickets is getting even more dastardly: Basic Economy fares are spreading nationwide.

Only in the increasingly complex airline world is there a big difference between “basic” and “standard.” Travel agencies have scrambled to display differences in coach fares so travelers don’t buy the lowest price without realizing they won’t get what they used to get.

What is Basic Economy? Delta, United and American, the three largest U.S. airlines, sell discounted fares about $30 to $50 less than standard coach tickets.

But there are major catches: Fliers are stripped of basic amenities like advance seat assignments and overhead bin space. Remember when airlines posted great-looking fares, only to reveal in the small print that they required a Saturday-night stay? Basic Economy is the new Saturday-night stay. Some people make it work, but the constraints push many to higher fares.

Now the big three airlines are rolling out Basic Economy across their entire domestic networks and some international routes. They’re betting even more travelers will then buy up to higher coach fares.

Frequent fliers complain Basic Economy basically creates a loyalty-program tax—they have to pay more to get the amenities they used to get free. Fares have been rising this year, so to many, Basic Economy looks like a ketchup bottle with fewer ounces at the same price.

“You see that upcharge and it’s kind of a kick in the teeth,” says Scott Nealey, a San Francisco attorney who takes about 40 trips a year.

He says United’s Basic Economy has shown up in his searches more than other airlines, even on expensive business trips. When he is paying $600 to $700 to go to Seattle, he wonders why any business traveler would agree to cede benefits to save $40. “It takes United off my map,” Mr. Nealey says.

With Basic Economy, you can’t get a seat assignment until right before departure and you can’t make same-day flight changes. On Delta, you board in the last group and aren’t eligible for upgrades or extra legroom seats, even if you have elite status. On United and American, you’re last in the boarding line unless you have elite status or a qualifying credit card that gets you earlier boarding. You can bring a full-size carry-on for the overhead bin on Delta. You can’t on United and American, unless you have elite status.

The fares are fraught for unsuspecting travelers who blindly book the lowest price. Slip up and bring a full-size carry-on to the gate and United and American will charge you $25 to check it when flying on Basic Economy. There go your savings, especially if you also check a bag on your return flight.

Families and groups should avoid Basic Economy tickets, because there’s no hope of sitting together. If you’re worried about getting bumped from a flight, don’t buy Basic Economy—cheap fares and no seat assignment make you an instant target for involuntary denied boarding. If you have elite status, you’ll lose some benefits.

Many travelers are willing to give up perks to save some dollars on tickets. Still, airlines say when offered a Basic Economy fare, which they initially started to compete with discounters like Spirit and Frontier, about half of all customers click to a higher fare.

American says the average upsell so far has been $23. Delta says it got an extra $100 million in revenue in the second quarter from its fare strategy, but that includes upsells to extra-legroom and first-class seats.

On United’s second-quarter earnings call, President Scott Kirby said the airline wasn’t getting the expected revenue boost yet because it has been more aggressive rolling it out and was losing customers to airlines offering the same fares without reduced benefits. Still, United said it expects Basic Economy to boost revenue by $200 million in 2017.

Many companies have removed Basic Economy fares from corporate travel-booking sites, and online travel agencies and even some airline apps let you opt out. American Express Global Business Travel says 66% of its clients suppressed Basic Economy fares at the end of December. That has grown to 75%. One reason: fares that are completely unchangeable or nonrefundable end up being expensive to companies when travelers have to make changes.

Airlines say Basic Economy is another step in stripping down their product to core transportation, then letting customers add the services they want, like checking bags, early boarding or selecting seats in advance.

A Delta spokesman likens Basic Economy to selling a hamburger, then asking customers if they want fries, too. “We feel like it’s been transparent and straightforward,” spokesman Morgan Durrant says.

United says an added benefit, since most Basic Economy passengers don’t get overhead bin space, has been a 30% decline in flights where overhead bins end up full and a 50% reduction in the number of bags tagged and checked at the gate. That means quicker boarding and more on-time departures.

“The majority of customers who purchase a Basic Economy ticket are arriving at the airport aware of the details this fare entails,” spokeswoman Maggie Schmerin says.

That still leaves many who aren’t. Industry analyst Henry Harteveldt, founder of the Atmosphere Research Group, says travel sellers and airlines need to do a better job clarifying the differences of Basic Economy.

“Airlines haven’t done a good-enough job marketing it as a product. People look at it as a fare. Then it’s confusing for the consumer,” he says.

Tom Farmer, a Chicago-based communications consultant, finds Basic Economy tickets are indeed presented as the new normal in coach. He avoids them, but doesn’t want to explain to clients why he bought a pricier ticket. Instead, he’s avoiding United and flying more with American, which has a much more limited rollout so far, as well as Southwest and JetBlue . “It propels more guys like me into free agency,” he says.



—No seat assignment until after check-in or at the gate.

—Families and groups not seated together.

—No ticket refunds, except within 24 hours of booking, or same-day flight changes.

—Board in the last zone, even with elite status.

—Not eligible for paid or complimentary upgrades or preferred seats, even with elite status.


—No overhead bin access unless you have MileagePlus elite status, Star Alliance gold status or a qualifying MileagePlus credit card. Only one item that fits under seat is allowed.

—Seats automatically assigned before boarding, no changes once assigned.

—Families and groups not seated together.

—No ticket refunds, except within 24 hours of booking, or same-day flight changes.

—Board in the last group, unless you have elite status or a qualifying MileagePlus credit card that gets you an earlier boarding group.

—Not eligible for paid or complimentary upgrades or preferred seats, even with elite status.

—Online or app check-in available only if you’re checking luggage. Otherwise, check-in at the airport.

—No elite-qualifying credit or lifetime miles earned with Basic Economy tickets. You do earn award miles.


—No seat assignment until check-in. You can pay a fee to reserve seats 48 hours before departure.

—No ticket refunds, except within 24 hours of booking, or same-day flight changes.

—Board in the last group, unless you have elite status or AAdvantage credit card benefit.

—Not eligible for upgrades.

—No overhead bin access unless you have AAdvantage elite status or a qualifying AAdvantage credit card. Only one item that fits under seat is allowed.

—Reduced elite-qualifying credit. You do earn award miles.

Original article can be found here ➤


  1. It's not like ordering a hamburger and not getting fries; it's more like ordering a hamburger and finding out the meat is extra, the ketchup is extra, the pickles are extra, and if you want the bun toasted, you have to upgrade to a "first-class" burger.

  2. and we should had these guys the keys to ATC

  3. "A Delta spokesman likens Basic Economy to selling a hamburger, then asking customers if they want fries, too." No, Basic Economy is like being asked if you'd like a bun with your hamburger.

  4. Someday whoever makes air travel so unpleasant will have to stand before God and give an explanation why they kept making conditions worse and worse for the customers whose business gave them a livelihood.

  5. In Europe it happened a while ago. Whole Lufthansa group (Luthansa, Swiss, Austrian, Brusells Airlines) did it. Use unbundled prices as tactical marketing prices and then up-sell. You can use this simple calculator to calculate the $$$ effect of the up-sell

  6. Complaining about airlines is like complaining about the media... 'they serve up what the public will buy.

  7. This simply reconfirms my resolution to skip the US majors and fly Southwest. Their product is consistent and their attitude toward passengers is refreshing. They have figured out a formula that provides a profit while treating passengers like something more than a "cash register".

  8. People honestly don't realize that it was *Them* that caused the low fare issue with airlines. They want the lowest possible fare but expect great service. People should consider themselves lucky that any service is provided.

  9. I propose a "strap hanger" section for short flights, maybe as long as Seattle to Phoenix. A nylon web restraint from floor to overhead could be designed.

    I have a bad back and would prefer to stand. I stand at least 6 hours a day while reading the Wall Street Journal and going online.

  10. United is probably months away from charging you a walk on the plane feel seatbelt fee and an oxygen mask fee. It's sad that the no frills airlines offer more frills free of charge than the major 3 carriers.