When the US-based airlines rolled out Basic Economy, it took some time to figure out the best way to explain it. In general, the idea was “this is like coach but the fares are more restricted.” That however, is far from enough information for a customer to make the proper decision on whether to buy it or buy up to regular economy. And now, as Delta and American have begun to roll the product out on long-haul flights over the Atlantic, things have become even more complex. American in particular has made this maddeningly confusing from a branding perspective. What does Basic Economy mean? Well, it turns out, there is no longer one answer.
When I explain Basic Economy to someone, I’ve essentially boiled it down to this: If you buy Basic Economy, no changes are allowed, no advance seat assignments are given, and (with the exception of Delta) no large carry-on bag is allowed. Sure this was an oversimplification. Sometimes a regular economy fare was so cheap that it wasn’t changeable either (the change fee was higher than fare). And some airlines allow you to buy seat assignments at various points before travel. But I found that those three points along with the promise that checked bag fees were the same regardless were really the information someone needed to determine if they were willing to buy Basic or not.
When Delta moved Basic Economy into the Atlantic (along with partners Air France/KLM and Alitalia which confusingly call it a Light fare and not Basic Economy), that all remained true EXCEPT for the piece about checked bags. On a standard fare to Europe, passengers still get one checked bag free. But now in Basic Economy, the first bag costs a whopping $60. After spending the last few months telling people that checked baggage does not need to be taken into account when comparing fares, now I have to reverse course. Though really, it’s more nuanced than that. Because while Air France/KLM and Alitalia are onboard with this structure, not all partners are.
For example, I looked at a roundtrip fare from LA to London on April 17 returning April 24. Delta wants $581.01 roundtrip in Basic Economy or $671.01 in regular economy. If I book that as a Virgin Atlantic codeshare, however, it’s $581.01 for regular economy and the checked bag is free. Who knows how long this will last until Virgin Atlantic adds the Basic fare as well, but for now, it’s a nice loophole that just adds more stress to the booking process. But still, what Delta has done is downright simple compared to American.
American launches Basic Economy to Europe in April with joint-venture partners British Airways, Iberia, and Finnair. As American explains in the travel agency FAQ that obnoxiously starts with “American Airlines is focused on meeting customers’ needs by offering Basic Economy…,” there are big differences between short-haul and Transatlantic.
- Like Delta, American has no fee for the first checked bag in regular coach today. On Basic fares over the Atlantic, there will be a fee for the first bag, but American hasn’t revealed what that will be. You can probably assume it’ll match Delta with a $60 fee.
- Unlike Delta, American doesn’t allow a large carry-on bag on short-haul flights. But over the Atlantic? The carry-on bag rules are the same whether you’re in regular economy or Basic. There is no restriction.
- Unlike Delta, American allows for seat assignments on short-haul flights to be purchased within 48 hours of travel. For long-haul, customers can purchase a seat assignment at any time before travel.
Confused? Well so is American. The airline’s easy-to-understand chart that it put out in the press release can’t even get this right, failing to note that you can purchase a seat assignment within 48 hours of travel on a short-haul Basic fare.
So what does all this mean? It means we’re back to that original idea that “this is like coach but the fares are more restricted.” Unfortunately, with the introduction of Basic Economy on Transatlantic flights, the “more restricted” definition now varies dramatically. This means that travelers need to read everything carefully when booking a flight and can never assume that they know the policy since it doesn’t apply across the board. In other words, this has become just as overly-complex as pretty much everything airlines do when it comes to fares.
I’m sure American sat around thinking about how to construct this and thought “well this is more customer-friendly. See we’re including a carry-on and allowing people to buy seat assignments at any time!” But that is NOT more customer friendly. It’s just more confusing and that stresses people out during the purchase process. This would work better if the airlines created consistent policies that applied across the board, because then people could understand them without a decryption key. If the issue is that American can’t get its international partners to go along with it, then it should just align domestic with the international policies to make things easier.
I don’t hate the idea of a Basic Economy fare, far from it. But as usual I find myself hating the way this is being implemented. The airlines simply can’t avoid shooting themselves in the foot.