Last night JonNYC shared some details of new American Airlines Basic Economy fares, which follow the path laid down by Delta and doubled down on by United. I wrote about these changes American is planning to make to its cheapest fares.
And then this morning American put out a press release on the changes. But there’s more to it than what was in the press release.
I appreciate the honesty in their release — contra most of the press coverage about Basic Economy fares to date — “It’s not a new discount, but a new set of attributes for our lowest fares.” Basic Economy fares do not mean lower fares for customers, they are a way to get customers to spend more money for things they receive today when buying a ticket.
Last night I shared that Basic Economy fares — which will go on sale next month in 10 markets before rolling out later in the year more broadly — would mean:
- Last boarding group with no full sized carry on allowed (“personal item only”) like with United
- No changes at all to tickets. Use it or lose it, not only no residual credit for cancellations but also no same day changes or standby.
- Seat assignments will only be available close-in. You’ll be able to purchase seats within 48 hours of travel, or get assigned leftover seats when you check in. Upgrades will not be permitted.
However like at United, elites and co-brand credit card holders will be able to board earlier based on status and be allowed to bring on a regular carry on bag. Remember that the credit card benefits include priority boarding. Making that benefit contingent on certain fares would be certain to create problems with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau which regulates credit card marketing.
As for families traveling together, since the fares don’t allow pre-assignment of seats,
American’s reservations system will check for families traveling with children 13 and under a few days before the flight, and attempt to seat each child with an adult. This is the same process we follow for Main Cabin customers.
American shared that these fares will earn full redeemable miles and elite qualifying dollars, however they will earn only 50% elite qualifying miles and 50% elite qualifying segments. United in contrast offers redeemable miles on their basic economy fares but no elite qualifying credit whatsoever.
Sizing Your Carryon, Not Restricting You From the Overhead
One myth is that these fares do not allow customers to use the overhead bin. That’s not true, once onboard customers aren’t treated any differently based on buying a Basic Economy fare. American will be checking bag sizes before entering the jetbridge, not where customers put their bags on the plane.
An American spokesperson tells me “We plan to update the bag sizers to make allowable carry-on sizes clear.”
I understand the allowable size of a personal item will be 18″ x 14″ x 8″. This will potentially have implications beyond Basic Economy customers, as anyone’s personal item can be checked by a gate agent against the permitted size.
Your Boarding Passes Will Have a ‘Scarlet B’
American also told me that boarding passes will identify basic economy customers. So even if you board early, a gate agent may notice your ‘Scarlet B’.
We’ll be providing multiple, clear disclosures throughout the travel process, and the boarding pass is one place we expect to use to accomplish this.
Will American Be Ready for the Launch of Basic Economy?
I’ve heard that the IT for all of these changes may not be 100% on day one for travel on Basic Economy fares. Specifically, the functionality to exempt elites frequent flyers and cobrand credit card holders from the ban on full sized carry ons may not be implemented and as a result the no carry on Scarlet B may print on boarding passes and require an agent to manually remove.
American hasn’t commented on this specifically, and I’m hopeful that they get everything working properly or delay launch until they do.
Where Basic Economy Customers May Be Worst Off is When Things Go Wrong
The biggest downside to these fares though appears to be something that hasn’t been shared with press. I asked American this morning to confirm and they haven’t responded (I’ll update if they do) but I’ve been told that non-elite Basic Economy customers will be at the bottom of the list for re-accommodation in the event of irregular operations.
Here’s how it seems like it would work if a flight cancels for someone (who is not an elite frequent flyer) on a Basic Economy fare:
- If flights cancel — whether due to weather, mechanical, crew availability, or otherwise — customers will only be re-accommodated onto American Airlines flights (no interlining onto another airline) and will only be re-accommodated into Basic Economy inventory.
It’s possible this merely means that it will be necessary to open ‘B’ class in order to reaccommodate a Basic Economy customer (making the reaccommodation process cumbersome). But it also may mean that a flight could have seats for sale, but not Basic Economy (‘B’) inventory, and so passengers won’t be given the seat that’s available even if the cancellation of their original flight was American’s fault!
- When American runs its automated system to re-accommodate passengers, Basic Economy customers will be re-assigned last.
Update: American has now confirmed to me that basic economy customers will not be re-accommodated on other airlines, and will be at the bottom of the list for automatic re-accommodation as well. However basic economy “B” inventory will not need to be available in order to be moved onto another flight.
American promises to make it clear to customers what they’re buying with basic economy fares (since they want to upsell customers, after all). Will they say, “we’re going to do as little as possible to even get you to your destination if we cancel your flight — and by the way our operational reliability hasn’t been very good so you’d better not buy these fares?” (Bureau of Transportation Statistics data shows a higher percentage of flight delays and cancellations than United Airlines for January through November 2016.)
Should You Just Fly Delta?
As I wrote when United announced their Basic Economy plans, if you’re buying the cheapest domestic fares, fly Delta.
Delta’s Basic Economy fares still allow full sized carry on bags. And Delta has a better airline operation — far fewer flight cancellations, and more on-time flights. At Basic Economy prices you shouldn’t be making your decision whom to fly based on a loyalty program anyway.