As Basic Economy Expands Across the Atlantic, the Message Gets Muddled

American, Delta, Fares

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.

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33 comments on “As Basic Economy Expands Across the Atlantic, the Message Gets Muddled

    1. I haven’t seen that anywhere. What’s your source. I haven’t seen that the baggage allowance is different depending on the mettle…

  1. Then they all wonder why people bash the airlines so much. When you have to read between the lines, decipher charts and zig-zag your way through diagrams (with each different airline for comparison) just to buy an airline seat, little wonder people are so confused AND ANNOYED at something that should never have been started in the first place !!! It’s obvious that this is also a measure to force people to use one airline because there will be all sorts of conflict trying to connect and then that other airline has a whole different set of rules. Unavoidable but boy oh boy do they have us by the short hairs.
    Simple…..people need a seat, they need to check a bag and get somewhere and they shouldn’t have to have elite status to be waived for a seat number or checking a bag. Stop complicating what is basic.

    1. Except that many people don’t need a checked bag, and don’t give a damn what seat they’re in, so why would they want to pay for that? When you rent a car, do you think it’s wrong that you have to pay more if you want an SUV over a compact?

      1. People that are not checking a bag and taking any seat are not paying for it, why are you saying that those people are paying for it ?? – I’m talking about passengers who are FORCED to pay for a bag or a seat number because they need to sit next to their four-year-old. That. is my point……NO ONE should have to pay for a specific COACH seat or row or for five more inches of legroom or even have to pay for a bag because they are at a “disadvantage” of having to pack more than a carryon (i.e, cruise, long trip) or travel with young children, etc. First come, first serve. Period. It has nothing to do with comparing a car rental to an airline seat in the coach cabin.

        1. Without basic economy, the lowest fares would be higher than they are now, effectively forcing those at the lowest price point to pay more. Traveling with young children is a special case that should definitely be handled in a way to keep the child with a parent, but that’s a specific situation that should have a carveout. It does not mean that everyone else should have to pay the main cabin fare if they don’t care where they sit.

          Paying for more legroom or additional luggage is very similar to paying more for a larger rental car. If you don’t have much luggage and don’t care about being cramped, a small car is fine. If you’re going on a week long road trip with your whole family, a compact will not be big enough.

          1. Except that in many cases the fare levels of BE were exactly what the airlines charges previously for regular economy fares. In other words, it was a fare hike or a benefits reduction.

            1. Those lower fares were a very recent trend to compete with the ULCCs, but regular economy at that fare level was not sustainable.

  2. What happens for passenger with carry-on bag on an basic economy ticket on AA have connection? Say LHR-JFK-CLT. Will the passenger get to take the bag on LHR-JFK, then only to be forced to pay to check bag on JFK-CLT? This is going to generate some vial videos and horrible stories….

    1. American says explicitly in a footnote that Cranky didn’t include that connecting transatlantic basic economy customers can bring a carryon bag on board on their domestic connections. So now on domestic flights, most no status BE customers cannot bring a rollaboard, but some can. How many ifs, ands, and buts will have to be printed on the boarding pass?

      1. Of course, they are still in boarding group 73 on that domestic flight and will likely have to hand over the bag since the bins will be full by the time they get to board.

        1. Likely true, but they wouldn’t be charged for the privilege, whereas someone on a domestic basic economy ticket would be charged to check a rollaboard at the gate (even if there were room on board).

    2. From the press release:
      Connections – Customers flying on a domestic Basic Economy leg connecting to a trans-Atlantic Basic Economy ticket will travel under the rules of the international ticket, including the carry-on bag allowance.

      Based on that I would assume that in your scenario (the reverse of what was described) the passenger will still get their free carry-on for the domestic portion, though I’m not sure how.

  3. American did nothing of the sort. British Airways is in the driver’s seat over the Atlantic. Hence the lack integration with AA North American’s product.

  4. This is going to be such a mess for gate agents boarding a flight at the outstations. Most Basic Economy pax will not be allowed a carry on, but some will. It could lead to confusion and anger among passengers.

    Delta did a better job IMO.

  5. To clarify on a few comments here, Basic Economy is tied to the fare, not the flight. So if you buy a ticket over the water in Basic, then any domestic connection will be allowed a carry-on. But there won’t be confusion at the gate. Transatlantic Basic goes into boarding group 8 while domestic goes into 9, so everyone through group 8 gets a carry-on and it doesn’t add complexity there. As far as the gate agent knows, those may not even be Basic travelers – they shouldn’t care.

    1. I thought that either AA or United had a marking on the boarding pass to denote basic economy fares.

      1. southbay – I don’t know if that’ll happen for Transatlantic or not.
        Because the way this is structured, there is zero value to the gate agent knowing. In fact, it’s better if the gate agent doesn’t know.

      2. Not only that, but agents have a “warning” on screen of any given flight if it’s a basic economy flight.

  6. How would your suggestion “This would work better if the airlines created consistent policies that applied across the board” work? You think airlines could agree on something like this? Of course, our helpful friends in D.C. could lend a helping hand……
    No doubt – this will get worse, before it gets better. Meantime it will continue to annoy……

  7. Agreed there could be some consumer confusion, but I think travelers will sort of get the distinctions on the bags, maybe less so on the seat assignments.

    On domestic flights, overhead space is at a premium (hence Spirit charging more for a roll-aboard than a checked bag). Trans-Atlantic, I’ve observed much less competition for bin space, and I can’t imagine there would be much of a market for flying with only an under-seat bag. Budget-conscious leisure travelers can certainly pack for a trip to Europe in a roll-aboard or carry-on duffel/backpack, and I imagine they’ll snap up these fares.

    1. I suspect that most, if not all of your trans-Atlantic travel is on a wide-body? Enter 737’s and similar, and that cavernous amount of hand-baggage space reduces considerably – and it is more likely to be troublesome

      1. This is a good point. I will be interested to see how basic economy plays out on the narrow-body trans-Atlantic routes. Still think that a higher proportion of fliers on these routes want to check a bag compared to domestic travel. I imagine the airlines have done some market research to see how many passengers will give up their checked bag.

    2. > Trans-Atlantic, I’ve observed much less competition for bin space

      Might that be because more passengers travel with a backpack or other personal item and a checked steamer trunk? Which now is no longer free to check?

      1. Sort of my point. On European routes my guess (and someone should chime in with actual data) is that the trip duration is longer and more passengers “need” to check a bag. That’s why one is included in the full fare.

        Same principle is true on most domestic BE fares (Delta is the odd man out). Most passengers need something larger than a purse/backpack, and pay for a regular economy ticket. The BE is meant for true penny-pinchers who can pack for a weekend in a book bag.

  8. WARNING, hot take ahead:

    Saying you like the concept but disagree with the implementation is a little like saying you like Donald Trump except for his tweets. In reality, he’s showing you the unsympathetic bully he is with those tweets and the big 3 US carriers are doing the same with their economy minus products.

    Its offensive to do things like charge a family of three $246 ($82 a seat for 3 seats) to sit together on a transatlantic flight and tack on $25 more for the diaper bag. Its even more offensive to do it because you say consumers want it.

    I also think their strategy is just plain wrong. I chose JetBlue, Virgin (Atlantic), Southwest, etc as often as possible specifically because they don’t pull these shenanigans and do treat me like a valued customer even though I’m not paying with a corporate card to sit up front. Seems like the big 3 see Spirit’s stock go up and treat all LCCs as the same threat (they must be beaten in the race to the bottom!). In practice, that race to the bottom is what’s driving me to the disruptors who aren’t engaging in it. I cannot wait for the day JetBlue flies those A321NEOs across the pond, and I don’t care about their on-time stats – at least they treat me like they want me on their airplane whenever it does takeoff.

    It makes me mad when I have to book with the Big 3 and see economy minus options on their sites – whether I’m booking that fare or not – it shows a fundamental misunderstanding and lack of respect for their customers. Kinda the same feeling I get when I read a Trump tweet.

    1. You’ve provided the counterargument for your own point: if you don’t like basic economy, don’t buy it. There are carriers like B6/VS/WN who don’t have a product like that.

    2. Sam
      you might consider that all US airlines are for-profit businesses and they will develop strategies that maximize their profits. Those strategies might be simple for consumers and might be complex.
      Delta and Southwest lead the US airline industry in 4th quarter 2017 operating margins; DAL used a complex model while LUV used a one-price, simple pricing model. There is a good possibility that scenario will be repeated in this quarter.

      All of the airlines do a relatively good job of disclosing the options on their own websites; the confusion comes from third party companies that can’t or don’t sort out the differences between airlines.

      Virgin Atlantic just announced their own economy basic program today; most European airlines that are aligned with one of the big 3 have done the same or will announced an EB product.

  9. Oh, but American doesn’t consistently define what international is! Mexico is domestic, except Mexico City, but only on baggage and admirals club, otherwise it’s domestic. Canada, always domestic. Except for credit cards that give free checked bags- then it’s all international!

  10. … this is all laughably annoying … the solution — all airlines running an economy cabin should have one, single, economy fare. One. Then, all the add ons can be added – bags, seat assignment etc – but from a single comprehensible shared understanding of the foundation fare…

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