Basic economy has been a profit boon for American Airlines and other carriers. For fliers, the option offers cheap flights on old guard, dependable airlines. For American and other airlines, basic economy gives them the chance to compete with the ultra-low carriers on air travel search sites.
But relatively few people know what they’re really signing up for when they buy a basic economy fare. On its website, American says this about basic economy: “If you want our lowest price, try our Basic Economy fare. There are some restrictions but you’ll still get a comfortable seat in the Main Cabin and enjoy free snacks, soft drinks and in-flight entertainment.”
The restriction American doesn’t want low-fare customers to know
Turns out one of those restrictions is pretty major: If there’s a problem with the plane, like a long delay or a cancellation, basic economy passengers will not be a priority when it comes to being re-accommodated. That rebooking policy was brought to light recently by air travel blogger Gary Leff who runs the site View From the Wing.
That’s not to say you’ll be stranded, but American Airlines ticket and gate agents have been instructed not to bend over backward for low-fare travelers. As a result, if non-elite status passengers need flight changes that need non-American planes, that’s when things get dicey.
When American Airlines debuted basic economy in February 2017, a memo to airline partners outlined the rebooking rules for fliers, saying, “In the case of irregular operations, non-elite customers will be re-accommodated on American or joint business partner airlines only; re-accommodation of elite customers will not change.”
The ramifications of American Airlines’ policy mean that low-fare customers, except in cases where managers choose to do otherwise, won’t be rebooked on rival carriers. Meanwhile, some AAdvantage members and other elite passengers will get the benefit of flying on Delta Air Lines, United or another carriers.
To be fair, Delta quietly rolled out a similar policy earlier, which American seems to have emulated.
So, with all this, you can see why money expert Clark Howard says basic economy is the airlines’ attempt “to try to make flying as miserable as they possibly could.”
He says about the major carriers: “They’ve been bragging to Wall Street that when people get burned by basic economy, the next time they go to book a flight they may click on that airline because they see a low fare and then they sell them up to a higher one.”