American Makes Basic Economy Seat Assignments Easier to Get in Advance

Basic Economy fares are highly restrictive, especially basic economy seat assignments. The goal is to make the travel experience worse, so that you don’t like that product and are willing to spend more money to avoid it.

  • No advance seat assignments
  • No changes to your ticket
  • No upgrades
  • Board last
  • No full-sized carry on bag (United only)

american airlines economy cabin

How Basic Economy is Supposed to Make More Money for Airlines

Basic economy is a price increase — but a targeted one. It’s a price increase on those who care about their travel comfort.

It’s also a way to regain pricing power over business travelers. Airlines used to offer cheap flights to leisure travelers and expensive flights to business passengers using 14- and 21-day advance purchase requirements and Saturday night stay requires for the least expensive fares.

One of the challenges posed by low cost airlines like Spirit and Frontier – beyond just competing with lower costs and lower fares – is that the fare rules that used to separate business and leisure passengers broke down. Spirit and Frontier started offering their cheap flights on one way and last minute fares.

What airlines have largely accomplished with basic economy fares is to keep their cheapest fares for price sensitive passengers. Business travelers frequently aren’t even shown basic economy fares in their booking tools. This is why basic economy isn’t sometimes just $20 or $30 cheaper but might even be $300 cheaper — you’re seeing the difference between what the airline is willing to sell a seat for and what they think they can sell that seat for to the right customer.

Harsh Basic Economy Rules Cause Airlines to Lose Business

The risk for airlines is that making their product worse, or more expensive, risks sending the customer to a different airline.

  • A higher-priced or less comfortable trip might mean people taking less trips

  • They might decide to spend more on a different airline — Delta’s basic economy is less restrictive than United’s basic economy (the only airline still banning passengers on basic economy fares from bringing carry on bags onto the plane, and refusing to allow basic economy passengers who don’t check bags to use online or mobile check-in).

american airlines back of cabin

When United launched their basic economy product they admitted it initially lost $100 million. They blamed this on American not yet having rolled out basic economy, so passengers booked away (at the same fare American was offering more value than United).

Of course Southwest Airlines is the largest carrier of domestic passengers and still allows two free checked bags and doesn’t charge change fees. And Delta’s President said harsh basic economy rules were causing United and American to lose money.

American is Making Basic Economy Seat Assignments Less Bad

American Airlines admitted that their basic economy plan underperformaed and they brought back carry on bags for basic economy customers to make it less harsh, in the hopes fewer customers would book away from the airline.

Now they’ve taken another step further and are allowing basic economy passengers to pre-select a seat for a fee a week in advance, instead of just 48 hours prior to flight. (HT: JonNYC)

Many Passengers Should Now Consider Buying Basic Economy on American

Most customers won’t get upgraded anyway, even elite customers. Boarding last doesn’t matter if you’re in coach on one of American’s planes with bigger overhead bins (gate agents are being told they don’t have to gate check bags on these flights). The 87% of passengers who fly no more than once per year have to pay for any decent advance seat assignment even if they spend more to avoid basic economy. And now that you can pay for that seat a week in advance, the average customer should just consider doing that.

basic economy seat assignment

American isn’t doing what it should be doing — trying to deliver a better product at a lower price — but it’s removed much of the sting from basic economy so that it can be something closer to what they need it to be, not a way to squeeze $20 more from passengers each way, but a way to separate leisure travelers from business travelers again. They’ve made basic economy seat assignments easier to get in advance, albeit for a fee.

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. @ Gary — Boarding last doesn’t matter if you simply board when they call for those that need extra time. There is no exploitation required. “I need extra time ‘cuz I am special…”.

  2. I’ve taken Basic Economy on AA a few times this year, and honestly think it’s TOTALLY fine, and not an imposition/ inconvenience at all. I’ve mostly done it on flights either on the E175 or E190 – and in my opinion all the coach seats on those airplanes are fine – it’s 2×2 – so imo there are no bad seats. I have the AA credit card, so still get to check my bag for free. And i have taken advantage of assigning myself a seat at the 48 hour mark. I even did it on an A319 flight from DCA to RSW at the height of tourist season and was able to get a decent window seat at the 48 hour mark for like $15 (or maybe less). In all cases where I did buy Basic Economy, regular economy was $60 or more for the roundtrip, and there was absolutely no way to justify that incremental, especially because I could get decent seats at the 48 hour mark and I have the credit card. Now that I can get these seats a week out, all the more reason to go Basic.

  3. I have written about this before. It is not just an increase for those who want to travel comfort. It is an extra charge to families travelling with young children. You and your other adult friend might be fine with taking the chance you won’t sit together. But this isn’t possible for someone with a 3 or 5 year old. So families are forced to pay more for non economy, and you are paying more for a middle seat!

  4. @Jason

    Yeah. You already listed your caveat that is a HUGE differentiator for your experience with Basic Economy vs many others’.

    If you’re flying on planes that don’t have middle seats, and are booking your group on a single PNR, then Basic Economy isn’t a huge deal. But for everyone flying on an Airbus or Boeing flight (ie most people at some point in their journey), Basic Economy becomes a bigger deal…

  5. “Of course Southwest Airlines is the largest carrier of domestic passengers and still allows two free checked bags and doesn’t charge change fees.”

    The mystique of “affordable Southwest Airlines” continues. I fly out of a large WN operation (Denver) and they are rarely less expensive than United.

    $600 round trip to Portland booking a month out!!

  6. I’ve flown AA’s Basic Economy a few times, and haven’t had any issues. On one flight, I was assigned a middle seat near the back of the plane, but there were plenty of open seats showing online. I asked the gate agent nicely if there was a better option, and she gave me a window exit row seat at no cost. Honestly, after flying Southwest to Phoenix a few weeks ago and dealing with their cattle call system, I’d rather do Basic Economy anyway! I checked in at exactly 24 hours prior and still ended up with B38 boarding position.

  7. The bigger problem with basic economy for regular AA travelers is that you will struggle to hit status again. I’ll struggle to even hit gold due to the half qualifying miles/segments.

  8. @Steve S
    What Gary described wasn’t “affordability”. What Gary described was “value”.

  9. @Jon – I also mention that I did Basic Economy on an A319, which is 3×3. It wasnt bad – and I did go ahead and pay for a seat at the 2 day mark. got a decent window for no more than $15. there were aisle seats left too. So I’d definitely do it again, and plan to.

  10. I agree with others that AA Basic Economy isn’t bad. I’m EP and lifetime Platinum so still get to board w my group and can find room for carry on. Only real issue is seat assignment and have no problem (for the discounted price) either sitting wherever they assign me for a 1-2 hour flight or buying a seat (still cheaper). Yes not upgradeable but, again, no big deal on 1-2 hour flight Do get fewer EQMs and points but since lifetime Platinum not worried about requalifying. Retired now so last year as EP. likely will look at other airlines since locked in at Platinum on AA (and Gold on DL as 2 million miler)

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