Home Lifestyle Travel Why basic economy on American, Delta, and United is not so bad

Why basic economy on American, Delta, and United is not so bad

11 min read

I usually avoid basic economy like the plague. The claustrophobic flyer in me doesn’t like middle seats. Since traveling on a basic economy ticket precludes you from pre-selecting seats, it’s usually a no-go for me.

However, I decided to take the plunge and go Delta basic economy for a recent trip to Florida. These flights were operated on a 76-seat regional jets with four-seats per row. Which means no middle seats!

Here’s why there is basic economy

There have been few developments in the airline industry as universally derided as basic economy on American, Delta, and United. For America’s three legacy airlines, the premise for basic economy is very simple; offer a slightly de-contented product at a price point on par with ultra-low-cost carriers (ULCCs) like Spirit or Frontier. It’s a product that not only keeps the ULCCs from infringing on their turf, it does the job without sacrificing the profitability of its traditional economy class offering.

“If we don’t match the lowest fare in a marketplace, we found that we’ll lose around 20% of our customers over time,” American Airlines CEO Doug Parker said at the Airlines for America Summit on Wednesday.

Delta basic economy versus traditional main cabin economy.

Basic economy is targeted at a specific band of value-conscious customers for whom price is king. In exchange for super low prices, passengers give up the ability to board the aircraft early, pre-select seats, have free carry-on bags, and enjoy free upgrades to premium cabins. On the upside, once onboard, basic economy passengers enjoy the same services and amenities as everyone else in the economy cabin.

“It’s not for everyone,” United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz told Business Insider in a 2017 interview. “It’s the economics of matching and competing in markets where the low-cost carriers are offering this type of basic-economy service.”

Unfortunately, many consumers didn’t quite see it that way. For a lot of us travelers, basic economy felt like an insult; an example of greedy airlines squeezing every remaining drop of blood left in its price-conscious customer base in form of cramped middle seats and carry-on bag restrictions.

Why basic economy works for me

For me, the business argument for basic economy makes perfect sense. However, I have always been a bit dubious on how the carriers would execute this fare class.

Unfortunately, my basic economy didn’t go quite as planned.

It’s 1 PM on the Friday before Labor Day weekend. Six hours before my flight out of JFK International was set to take off, I get the text every traveler dreads. Delta Air Lines had canceled my flight. Good news! They’ve rebooked on a Saturday evening flight.

A Delta Boeing 757-200.
Reuters/Tami Chappell

Unfortunately, this wasn’t going to work for me. Not only was this supposed to be a mini holiday weekend getaway for my girlfriend and me, we were also attending the wedding of one of her best friends. And that Saturday night flight meant we would miss a solid chunk of wedding festivities.

After a few seconds of blind panic and a couple of concerned looks from my editor, I jumped on Twitter to reach out to Delta while hurriedly calling their customer service line.

What happened next, along with the nightmarish experience my colleague Rachel recently had with an ultra-low-cost international carrier, would solidify my belief that basic economy isn’t as bad as we imagined.

My conversation with Delta. Part 1. However, they did get my name wrong.

More on Rachel’s flight later.

I was able to reach Delta’s customer support with surprising ease considering there were flight cancellations with stormy weather looming on the eve of a holiday weekend. I spoke with the customer support agent who quickly put me on the first flight out on Saturday morning.

Just as I got off the phone, their social team got back to me as well. So I decided to see if they could find a flight for us on Friday night at one of New York’s other airports. Apart from calling me by the wrong name, Delta’s social team were immensely helpful and absolutely nailed it.

Delta was actually able to put me on a flight out of Newark Airport that departed around the same time as my previous flight with a connection through Atlanta. When the Newark flight got delayed, our customer service rep put us on a later connecting flight.

Here’s part 2.

The entire experience was calming and very pleasant. The absolute antithesis of society’s general mental image of airline customer service.

My colleague had a low-cost flight nightmare

In late July, my colleague Rachel Premack flew booked a flight from Paris to New York on Latvian-Icelandic low-cost carrier Primera Air.

Only she didn’t end up flying Primera. Her ordeal was painstakingly documented in a review published last month.

In short, Primera delayed her flight for four hours and before canceling it altogether in the middle of the night due to “technical reasons.” Communication between the airline and its passengers was poor at best. Some got email instructions, others didn’t. Even though Primera found hotel rooms for the stranded passengers, it couldn’t rebook them on other flights. Instead, Rachel had to spend another $1,249 on a Norwegian Air flight.

It’s been nearly two months since the incident and Primera has yet to reimburse her for the flight.

A Primera Air Airbus.
Julio Cortez/AP

This certainly isn’t representative of all low-cost carriers. Southwest has built a sterling reputation for itself over the years. But these two events serve to highlight the delta in customer service between ULCCs and full-service legacy carrier.

“One of the biggest services that people don’t understand is that if you buy a ticket on (ULCCs like) Spirit and it ain’t working, or if the plane doesn’t go for some reason, you are done. You gotta buy another ticket,” Munoz told us last year. “You don’t get reaccommodated [but] you get very accommodated when you fly with a legacy airline.”

The United CEO’s words proved to be prophetic in this case.

Part of the cost of a legacy carrier is the infrastructure put in place to handle operations when things do go wrong, but with basic economy, you get that service at ultra-low-cost prices.

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