American and United this week joined Delta in starting to sell the new Basic Economy fare category, so might be time to refresh yourself on the specifics of the fares and consider whether they would ever be appropriate for a business trip.
The highly restricted fare category was certainly not designed for business travelers; it was conceived to give the legacy carriers a way to match the fares of ultra-low-cost airlines like Spirit and Frontier. But because corporate travel departments might still require employees always to travel on the lowest available fare for domestic flights, Basic Economy could become an issue for you in the weeks and months ahead. (If your company hasn’t advised you of any changes in travel policy regarding Basic Economy, it might be worthwhile to have a talk with travel managers to make sure they understand the tradeoffs that such fares require you to make.)
The rollout at United and American will be gradual. United this week started selling the new fares on routes linking Minneapolis-St. Paul with its hubs at Chicago O’Hare, Denver, Houston Bush Intercontinental, Los Angeles, Newark, San Francisco and Washington Dulles. American is selling the fares for travel starting March 1 on routes linking Philadelphia with Charlotte, Dallas/Ft. Worth, Ft. Lauderdale, Miami and New Orleans, as well as Charlotte-Orlando, DFW-Baltimore-Washington, DFW-Tampa, Miami-Tampa and Miami-New Orleans. Both airlines will expand the availability of the fares in the months to come.
Probably the biggest drawback of the fares for business travelers is their inflexibility: Once you’ve bought one, you can’t make any ticket changes and you can’t get a refund if you don’t make the trip. You will also be in the last boarding group, and you can’t book a seat in advance.
The mainstream media has made much of the fact that Basic Economy fares do not entitle the traveler to bring a full-size carry-on bag and stow in in the overhead bin – only a small “personal item” is allowed, and that must go under the seat. (Delta’s Basic Economy fares, unlike American’s and United’s, do allow one carry-on.)
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But preferred customers – i.e., loyalty program elites and holders of the airline’s affinity credit cards – can get a break on a couple of restrictions. They can stow a carry-on bag in the overhead, and they can still benefit from preferred boarding. In-flight service will be the same for all passengers in the economy cabin (Delta said its announcement of free meals in coach on transcontinental routes will even be offered to Basic Economy passengers), but even elite status will not let you get an upgrade – complimentary or paid – when you’re on a Basic Economy fare.
Rules vary for mileage credits earned with Basic Economy fares. On Delta, they’ll still earn Medallion Qualification Miles and Dollars at 100 percent of distance flown. On American, AAdvantage members earn award miles and Elite Qualifying Dollars based on the ticket price, but Elite Qualifying Miles and Segments are earned at a reduced rate of 0.5 per mile/flight segment. United MileagePlus members will earn award miles, but not Premier qualifying miles, segments or dollars.
You can click on the links above for specifics of United’s and American’s Basic Economy restrictions. And here’s a link to Delta’s.
So should a business traveler book a basic economy fare? Yes, maybe for a shorter trip like San Francisco to Phoenix or Atlanta to Ft Lauderdale. But when a good seat, overhead bin space and full mileage are wanted, best to steer clear. The difference in fares is likely not enough to make it worthwhile.