Basic Economy Fares Are Exactly What We Thought: A Giant Scam

It has not been a good time for American airlines. Unless your company recently made headlines for tangling with pregnant women and professional violinists desperately trying to protect their $20,000 instruments … you’re probably doing better than the airlines. 

Carriers have their own way of striking back, of course: in our collective wallets. Earlier this year, the Big Three airlines — United, Delta, and American — all started offering some version of a so-called Basic Economy fare: fares that are actually considerably more restrictive than what you’d get on the so-called garbage airlines (we just made that up right now, but we’re thinking of you, Spirit). Rules vary between each one, but look at the fine print before planning on carrying on anything bigger than a paperback book, or changing your dates of travel at all. 

There are some advantages to grabbing the cheapest seats in an otherwise nice aircraft: They can’t actually stop you from using the same wifi as the other passengers, for example. The real problem, though, lies elsewhere. Adding a new, super-low tier of ticket has allowed the airlines to do what everyone feared they would: bump up the prices on the “middle” tier (i.e. the old regular economy.) It’s a trick as old as a pyramid scheme: Nobody wants the cheapest option (ew!) or the most expensive (who are we, Daddy Warbucks?) So we’ll go for the middle one, even if it’s pricier than it was before all this malarkey began — and even if you’re not actually getting anything extra for your money. 

It’s bull, everyone knows it’s bull, and it’s going to keep happening as long as the number of independent carriers dwindles. (Read this, from Pro Publica, for a primer on the problems of consolidation.) Until then, we have a sole solution: Pick up a rewards card, and hold on to your amenities (free checked bags, etc.) that way. The airlines aren’t looking out for your best interests — and as we’ve seen, they will call the cops on you.