Recently, we’ve seen all three major US carriers rolling out ‘basic economy’ fares, fares which allegedly cost less but feature less frills as well (i.e. no advance seat selection, refunds, or upgrades for elites) and are designed to compete with low-cost carriers.
American began selling basic economy tickets this morning, for flights between Philadelphia and New Orleans, Fort Lauderdale, Charlotte, Dallas and Miami, between Charlotte and Orlando, between Dallas and Tampa and Baltimore, and between Miami and New Orleans and Tampa. Passengers in basic economy won’t be able to select seats in advance, won’t receive upgrades, won’t get a free carry-on, and won’t be able to cancel or change their tickets, even for a fee. In terms of mileage earning, passengers in basic economy will earn full redeemable miles and elite qualifying dollars, while they’ll only get half elite qualifying miles and elite qualifying segments.
Of the three major carriers, United has been by far the harshest when it comes to these fares, offering even less frills than American. They rolled out basic economy fares today as well, which were so restrictive I’m tempted to begin calling UA “Spirited.” They won’t let passengers earn elite qualifying miles, segments, or dollars, or bring a carry-on onboard (personal items are allowed, and Star Alliance Gold members, United elites, and those with United’s co-branded credit cards are allowed carry-on’s). Due to all the extra fees, you’ll end up paying 50 dollars for a carry-on, similar to what Spirit charges.
See, many people today like to complain about all of the nickle-and-diming airlines do these days, but the fact is that these things airlines charge for weren’t always free: they were included in the cost of your ticket, making the whole thing more expensive. In a similar way, one would think that this next-level nickle-and-diming in basic economy would reduce the fairs further. Except it doesn’t.
For example, from San Francisco to Minneapolis, one of the markets United is selling basic economy in, fares before the introduction of basic economy are roughly equal to those after. For example, flights departing the day before basic economy is introduced cost exactly the same as those on the day United introduces basic economy. This isn’t isolated: the basic economy fare prices are available for a number of other dates before the introduction of basic economy. When it comes to American, using Charlotte-Orlando as a sample market, fares vary quite a bit and fares are not radically lower. So, the fares aren’t cheaper across the board, are they?
If the fares aren’t really cheaper across the board, what is the point of basic economy? It isn’t, as many airlines will claim, to provide travelers more options: it’s to make more money. If airlines would just get around to admitting it, I think everything would be a lot clearer. But I’m being unrealistic, aren’t I?