American Airlines Makes Basic Economy Better: Paid Seat Assignments At Booking

Basic economy fares were supposed to squeeze passengers for more money. They were touted by some airlines as ‘a new lower fare’ but that was never true. They represented new restrictions on the already-lowest fares.

The idea was two-fold:

  1. Get passengers who care about comforts to spend a little more, that’s where the difference between basic and regular economy is $20 – $30
  2. Segment corporate travelers from leisure travelers, so that businesses still pay a lot more even in an era where Saturday stay and advance purchase requirements are far less common, that’s where the difference between basic and regular economy is hundreds of dollars

This was an unusual strategy. Most businesses don’t try to make more money by making their product worse. And when United rolled out their basic economy – more restrictive than Delta’s (no full-sized carry on bag) and before American rolled theirs out – they lost about a hundred million dollars as customers chose other airlines instead.

American found their basic economy offering wasn’t working, too. They – like United – had refused to let Basic Economy customers bring a standard carry on bag onto the plane. However they eliminated that restriction. They didn’t want to push passengers to choose competitors. And last summer they started letting passengers pay for seat assignments 7 days prior to flight instead of just 48 hours to departure (customers who don’t pay for seats get whatever’s available at check-in).

In late 2019 they tested letting customers pay for seats at booking on certain routes. That test has been rolled out across the network and made a permanent feature of basic economy fares. Basic economy customers can now choose to pay for seat assignments at time of booking. (HT: @JTGenter)

Seat details

Flights within the U.S., Canada, Central America, Mexico & Caribbean

You can choose a specific seat at any time for a fee. Otherwise, seats will be automatically assigned for free at check-in.

Flights to / from Europe

You can choose a specific seat at any time for a fee. Otherwise, seats will be automatically assigned for free at check-in.

Families traveling

If you’re a family traveling with children under 15, and do not already have seats assigned, our system will search for seats together automatically before the day of departure. We’ll try our best to keep you together, but if seats are limited, we’ll assign seats so children under 15 are next to at least 1 adult.

So what’s left of Basic Economy restrictions at American?

  • No free seat assignments in advance (but non-elites rarely get any good seats without paying anyway)
  • No changes to your ticket (but changes to even basic economy tickets purchased by April 15 are free)
  • No upgrades (only meaningful for upper-level elites)
  • 50% earning of elite qualifying miles/segments (only matters for those seeking elite status)
  • Board last (but with more planes offering bigger overhead bins, boarding last isn’t a bad thing, and elites and co-brand credit card customers are exempt)

For non-elite travelers, choosing to buy up from Basic Economy means spending more money for the right to spend more money to select a seat since there are so few seats offered free, and those are often middle seats that’ll be assigned free at check-in to a Basic Economy passenger anyway. Indeed, having seats assigned at check-in often means doing better than a middle when better seats are left.

There are businesses who won’t show basic economy fares to their travelers, and airlines therefore benefit from charging those businesses higher prices. How long even that will last is unclear as restrictions on these fares loosen.

I do not see any real reason to stay way from Basic Economy fares at this point, unless the buy up to regular economy is very small. It largely is a buy up for the possibility of an upgrade and more credit towards re-earning elite status, which has been less likely and less valuable in recent years. And that means, effectively, the end of basic economy as a pricing strategy.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. If you play the basic economy lottery when the flight is above average load factor and you are on a route/time with low elite levels of passengers you find that the better seats such as MCE got filled up at the last minute by those Group 9 people. I’m sure AA knows this and so do the elite members who find that sitting next to them in row 10 is Stacie from accounting on her once yearly trip to Daytona.

  2. I purchase basic economy when it is a regional jet with no middle seats. Hey, it’s a regional jet; I don’t care where I sit since almost all of the seats suck.

  3. Tive minha passagem cancelada ,Com volta para o Brasil no dia 24 de abril,por causa da pandemia do coronavirus,não tenho ideia de quando poderei voltar para casa,Mas prometi a mim mesma nunca mais viajar pela empresa American Airlines,péssima companhia aérea,preciso voltar ao Brasil e nenhuma solução.

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