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American’s New Basic Economy Fares… Too Much Like United’s

As of yesterday, American was the only one of the Big Three legacy airlines that hadn’t revealed details of its basic economy fares, the cheap coach fares with few perks and plenty of restrictions that have made Spirit, Frontier, and other ultra-low-cost carriers the darlings of the most price-sensitive customers, and of Wall Street.

When United finally went public with its plan to introduce Basic Economy fares sometime this year, Delta’s Basic Economy had already been available for sale for several years. And while both carriers’ unbundled fares deserved the “basic” descriptor, United’s version was significantly more basic than Delta’s. Harsher, that is. Rather than basic fares, I suggested they might better be called Nasty Fares.

In particular, unlike Delta’s basic fares, United’s limited carry-ons to one personal item, prohibiting passengers from using the overhead storage bins. And travelers earned no elite-qualifying miles, segments, or dollars for basic-fare flights.

The loss of elite miles is probably a non-issue for most of the targeted basic fare customers, although it does seem patently unfair. But just one small carry-on? That’s harsh, and clearly designed to force passengers to pay to check their bags, offsetting at least some of the savings that basic fares are supposed to offer.

So, as of yesterday, there were two versions of basic fares, one notably less generous than the other. Which version would American choose to emulate; or would it opt to go its own way?

American answered that question this morning, with a news release announcing details of its Basic Economy fares. And predictably, it’s not good news for travelers.

While basic fare passengers will earn elite-qualifying miles and segments, albeit at a reduced rate, American has chosen to follow United’s lead in restricting use of the overhead bins. Here’s what American’s Basic Economy customers can look forward to:

  • No advance seat assignments
  • Carry-on bag limited to “personal item”; no overhead bin use
  • No same-day standby or flight changes
  • Not eligible for upgrades
  • Last to board

As did both Delta and United, American is promoting the new fares as expanding the universe of choice for its customers. “American Airlines now has something to offer every customer, from those who want simple, low-price travel to those who want an ultra-premium experience via First Class.” But that’s not all: “Importantly, this new fare product also gives American the ability to compete more effectively with the growing number of ultra low-cost carriers.”

One suspects it’s more about the latter than it is about the former. And to the extent that it is about choice, it’s disappointing that American is forcing travelers to “choose” to pay extra to check their bags.

American’s basic fares will go on sale in February, initially for flights in 10 markets. Availability will be extended gradually to other markets, but American does not plan to offer Basic Fares systemwide.

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After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.

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