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Basic economy isn’t supposed to be a new cheaper fare. It’s supposed to be new restrictions on what used to be the cheapest fare. That way people who don’t like the restrictions are supposed to spend more money to avoid the inferior experience.
That’s why the restrictions are so onerous:
- No advance seat assignments
- No changes to your ticket
- No full-sized carry on bag
- No upgrades
- Board last
And yet the price was so good, the cost to buy out of the restrictions so high, and the journey made easier by elite status that it turned out my first experience actually flying on one of these fares turned out not to be bad at all.
I Bought Basic Economy Because American Wanted Too Much Money to Avoid the Restrictions
Usually you’ll pay about $20 extra to avoid basic economy when that fare is offered. I was being asked to pay an extra $236. This was a personal trip, out of my own pocket, there was no way I’d pay an extra $236 for an advance seat assignment (and a miniscule chance of upgrade on an Airbus A319 with just 8 first class seats).
While mid-tier elites and higher giving up upgrades — and at a minimum usually access to complimentary Main Cabin Extra seats — get the most benefit from buying up from basic economy fares, elites also have fewer restrictions when they do fly on these fares.
Customers who have the airline’s co-brand credit card or who have elite status get their usual boarding priority. And since the restriction on carry on bags is enforced by boarding group, having priority boarding also means getting to bring on that carry on.
I was traveling with my wife. She flew her outbound on American, and would take the same flight as me coming home. One quirk about American’s basic economy is that is isn’t combinable with other fares. So by booking her outbound where basic economy wasn’t offered, she got the same $50 return flight without basic economy restrictions.
We both agreed it made sense not to sit together for the flight. For $236 savings we’ll spend a couple of hours apart.
So I booked my ticket. The only real loss would be that I’d take whatever seat I was given.
$17 Let Me Sit With My Wife
American will still let you pay for a seat assignment 48 hours out on one of these fares. So I pulled up the seat map and here’s what I was offered.
I could have booked a bulkhead window or exit row aisle for $64. That’s a bit rich for a two hour flight, and I wouldn’t have been able to sit with my wife (who has AAdvantage elite status and could select one of these seats for free) anyway.
I booked 19E for $17. That’s the same kind of seat I probably would have gotten free. But I put my wife in 19D for free. So on a basic economy fare, for $17, we even were seated together.
Now I’d Just Experience Tight Coach Seating Like Everyone Else
We still had use of the American Airlines Admirals Club from my Citi / AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard.
I boarded with my usual group, in this case after one ConciergeKey passenger and first class. There were just the two of us boarding between groups 2 and 3.
The 17 year old legacy US Airways plane had (air to ground) wifi and streaming video content but no seat back entertainment. I don’t love regular economy on the plane, but it doesn’t yet have the new smaller lavatories or the new domestic seats. It’s fine for two hours.
And at a fare of $49.30 plus $17 to sit with my wife I have no complaints. Plus legacy US Airways A319s have seat power in economy, two plus for each row of 3 seats. On a 2 hour flight I wouldn’t even need it.
I wasn’t hungry and didn’t even much feel like a cocktail. But since American was nickel and diming me, I was going to take full advantage of my Executive Platinum benefits. As a 100,000 mile flyer I’m entitled to a snack and a cocktail when flying economy, so I definitely asked a flight attendant for that.
And more value back for my ticket I even earned 363 miles which I value at $5.44.
There was a screaming child sitting directly behind me, but that wasn’t a feature of my fare class and just a function of travel.
American Imposed Big Restrictions on My Ticket and I Still Won
There’s no question American Airlines left money on the table with me on this flight. They’ve moved to a system where they want customers to book on schedule and price instead of loyalty, and that’s what I did only schedule and price this time meant flying American.
They underpriced their tickets. Southwest Airlines non-stops were about the same price as American’s regular economy fare. Frontier’s one flight at 6:45 a.m. wasn’t an option. They were discounting instead of charging as much as competitors for a similar product. Yet somehow they’re going to report that Basic Economy is making them more money.
While I don’t think American ought to try to be all things to all people, and I far prefer and would happily pay for a premium experience, American Airlines doesn’t offer one flying Phoenix – Austin at any price (domestic first class with no seat back video and legacy US Airways new first class seats hardly counts).
However with a co-brand credit card or elite status they offer a perfectly manageable “Allegiant experience” that’s well worth the $49.30. I feel like I got amazing value flying American Airlines, and I’m not sure I’ve felt that way in quite awhile.
Still I’d much prefer a modest buy up to regular economy for the 872 mile trip if only so I wouldn’t need to pay attention and return to the seat map 48 hours out since I cared about where I’d be sitting and even the cheapest middle seat costs almost $17 to pre-reserve.