Bait and Switch: New American Airlines Deceptive Pricing Trick Exposed

American Airlines has started hiding the ball on basic economy restrictions when you book travel on their website. They’re showing lower prices than what passengers can expect to pay, and find there’s a bait and switch when they click through only to learn that they were seeing basic economy fares and American hadn’t told them when they first displayed schedule and price.

I genuinely don’t understand what American Airlines is thinking here. Update: American Airlines shares their thinking below, though I am not persuaded.

Here’s what you see when searching for a one-way Chicago to Miami trip. The first option shown, which isn’t even the lowest price for the day by default, is $167. That’s the ‘main’ cabin price, while premium cabin seating is $544.

If you’re interested in that flight at $167, you’ll click through and see that the ‘Main’ fare is actually $207. American had said Main was $167, but Main is really $40 higher than advertised. That $167 fare was actually basic economy, which is different!

If you don’t have AAdvantage status, you must pay if you want an advance seat assignment. If you lack status and don’t have an American Airlines credit card, you board last (and probably have to gate check your carry-on bag). You don’t earn as many miles for trip, even accounting for the difference in price. And you don’t get full credit for the value of the ticket if your plans change and you have to cancel the booking.

I change plans enough that even with status, I tend to avoid basic economy most of the time. For most passengers, the difference in product is even greater.

Even aside from the obvious that American advertises “Main” at $167 here and then when you select it the price for “Main” turns out to be $40 higher – which seems fundamentally problematic at its core – my concerns are:

  • The price to buy what ‘the standard product’ is higher than what American first displays.
  • If there’s a basic economy fare in the market, American is showing you a lower price than standard Main Cabin and calling it main.
  • And they are diverging from industry standard here, in making you click through to see the real prices.

American Airlines basic economy isn’t as bad as United’s product. United bans basic economy passengers from bringing a full-size carry-on bag on board, and won’t let basic economy customers skip the check-in area completely – those without checked bags aren’t able to get their boarding passes online. But American’s basic economy still has restrictions that aren’t visible when you search.

The new Department of Transportation rules on fee disclosure go into effect at the end of October and this will not pass muster.

That’s because DOT rules require that airlines disclose checked bag, change, and cancellation fees upfront the first time that fare and schedule information is provided and expressly cannot require clicking a link to get this display.

In general I think that the airlines have a reasonable objection underlying their suit to stop the rule but American is undermining that case by hiding the ball on basic economy in the current fare display, just like I’ve documented the way that American Airlines sells refundable business flexible fares that entail a $500 refund fee that almost no one knows about until they go to request a refund.

(HT: Thrifty Traveler)

Update: American Airlines offers the following statement,

Based on customer feedback, we’ve made strides in the last few months to simplify the booking experience on by grouping fares by cabin and then providing customers the option to click down to view details of various fare offerings in each cabin.

Our updated, more intuitive display shows first the options for Main Cabin or Premium Cabin, before then guiding the customer through each fare product within the respective cabin to provide more clarity to our customers on the type of fare they may choose to purchase, and the benefits that come with it.

This display ensures customers can comparison shop and choose the fare that makes the most sense for them based on their travel needs or benefits they may already receive through AAdvantage status.

The new drop down display does a good job showing different economy fare types, and the restrictions and enhancements that go with each. However I do not believe it is necessary to hide the ball on basic economy to accomplish this. Just keep the old display which showed Basic Economy, Main Cabin, and each premium cabin at their lowest price – and expand out to show additional higher-priced options with benefit comparisons.

That way you literally accomplish the same thing, with the same graphics and bullets, without hiding that the fare being shown is more restrictive, and the airline wouldn’t find itself advertising one price for “Main” and then when the customer clicks through show a price that’s $40 higher for “Main.”

To draw your attention back to their website display that I highlighted above:

I don’t believe that anyone intended to be engaging in a form of trickery here, but that sure seems to be the effect.

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. AA is not the only airline to do this. My advice is: NEVER skip over the telltale onscreen clue word “FROM” next to the price. That always mean there is a “catch,” and so, be prepared!

  2. Typical thievery thought process.. nothing new..has been happening for a long time in the airline industry.. These types think up something new when the old one is discovered.. Its called bad people in the mix with otherwise good people just trying to do a good daily job. These types need to be fired on the spot and held liable according to the law where applicable.

  3. Many of us appreciate the work you are doing to expose the poor and deceptive business practices of some carriers. Keep up the great work.

  4. I was ready to say this is a nothingburger. But its not-I didn’t realize the first screen said “main” then pushed that down to BE on next screen. They need to fix that-fast.

  5. Also, when checking flights from DFW to Mexico, I noticed they list one free checked bag as a benefit of basic economy. You have to click on *restrictions apply* next to it to see that’s not included – they pretty much say “we didnt actually mean a free CHECKED bag, only a carry on.”
    Very deceitful.

  6. i have been waiting some time for an threAAd on AA pricing to ask this…..

    can anyone point me to a guide on how to book AA on concur so i can then *GUARANTEED* take that ticket and use miles to upgrade to first *GUARANTEED* to be able to do it myself using that ticket # or PNR on using miles from my aadvantage account…..

    so to start, what are the fare codes for cattle that can be upgraded with miles?

    and anyone with a link to a site or a flyertalk thread that discusses this?

    sorry for the sort-of-off-topic and thank you gary for not deleting this – you should start your own discussion forum

  7. @Matthew: Trust me, you haven’t flown United Basic Economy yet. Nothing can be worst than that. You cannot check-in online; you cannot bring anything; you cannot choose seat… Try UA Basic Economy for yourself. Nobody beats Kirby. He is the King.

  8. I wish I could see the site without any Basic prices included. Don’t show me that lower price because I’m not going to buy it anyway.

  9. AA making the case for the DOT going after deceptive pricing strategies for them

  10. AA is slightly above Spirit for me … so 2 steps above renting a Hertz Tesla.

    I’ve taken that lux bus from Philly to NYC. WiFi, comfy seats and right at Javitz front door in 80 minutes. $40?

  11. I’m a profligate AA basher – there’s sooooo much I don’t like. But I think this particular concern is overblown. When you click past that initial screen showing the lowest “main” pricing, you immediately see what the full menu of main cabin options are, and a summary of the attributes, pro and con, for each. Bottom line is, whether you are buying basic economy, main, or main plus, you are buying a seat in the main cabin, with varying degrees of pros and cons. AND – most significantly to my thinking – if you next click the basic economy. lowest-cost option, the AA system actively tries to talk you out of it, warning you all the reasons why you might not want to buy that fare, encouraging you to move up to the next class of service, and stating the extra cost to do so. This flow would only be a concern for me if you went straight to the AA “buy” screens upon clicking the basic economy displayed fare from the original landing page. But that’s not how it works. And by the logic of your post, one could argue it would be just as deceptive for the middle-of-the road “main” fare to be displayed, instead of the “main plus” – after all, you are getting more with main plus than main just as you are getting more with main than with basic economy. To me this is a mountain out of a molehill. And if a buyer doesn’t trouble themselves to understand what they are buying, and the pros and cons, when that information is plastered all over the place, that’s a zero sympathy situation imo. Now, if this were something like a “resort fee” for a hotel, where you have to truly dig to find it, or it gets billed to you separate from your airfare, maybe I’d feel differently. But this ain’t that. In sum, I have plenty of bones to pick with AA – but this website layout isn’t on the list, for me.

  12. I agree 100%. This is deceptive. I (nearly) fell victim to it a week ago, pricing tickets for last-minute travel. Silly me, I assumed “Main” meant regular economy and not “Basic Economy”.

    I ended up booking AA (they still had the best ticket at the best price) but I am unhappy at the deception.

    Companies don’t realize that we remember attempts to screw us over. This can be fatal for companies that rely on repeat customers, including airlines.

  13. I also have a need to fly AA PHL-MSY, because, reasons. Their Basic Economy fare (nonstop) was <$100 o/w. Regular economy was well over $300. Crazy disparity. Almost motivates me to fly Frontier (which runs it less than daily) only out of spite.

  14. This is the kind of nonsense that results in government regulation that the airlines, hotels, and rental companies then complain about. You’d think they’d realize that if they just practice honorable business, they wouldn’t have so much regulation to comply with.

  15. This is really not acceptable. I can’t complain about over regulation if companies are doing things that encourage regulation. I am fine if they say plus taxes or if it is *very clear* that there are other expenses being incurred. Basic Economy passengers are the most likely to not understand the impact of their choices.

    There should be a Basic First mostly because that is my demo!

  16. I think you are naive thinking that this was not deliberate – websites are very rarely just thrown together. There is a lot of analysis to figure out how the user interfaces with the tech.

    My guess is executive XYZ requested a budget to update the website with a promise that it would drive X% more revenue. This was a (silent) feature that was intended to make sure they hit their goal.

    ….that is how you climb the greasy pole in Corp America

  17. @tom sure but “never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by neglect, ignorance or incompetence.”

  18. I noticed this when booking a couple of weeks ago and absolutely thought it was deceptive – showing a $99 fare and it instead actually being $144 for what I want ain’t truth in advertising. It’s also very annoying trying to compare against different dates. It’s not helpful to the user, so I’m gonna go with it being intentionally deceiving.

  19. Good Lord! Why is this such as shock to everyone? It’s Marketing 101. You always advertise your lowest price. Do you think BMW advertise the price of an X5 SUV as $124,000? No! It “starts at” $65,700 – because that’s the price of the base model.

    AA’s pricing behavior is driven by the consolidators, such as Kayak and Expedia. They allow travelers to peruse prices from dozens of airlines side-by-side, so they all show their lowest fares. If you select a fare on Expedia, it does the same as the AA web site – it displays all of the prices; Basic Economy, Main Cabin, Main Plus, and so on. AA is not doing anything different.

    At least with AA, the price that you see it the price that you pay. Try that with hotels or car rental companies. A hotel room advertised at $250 suddenly becomes $290 with taxes and fees. A rental car at $30 per day for 5 days does not cost $150 – no, with taxes and fees and concession fees and god knows what else, it becomes $210.

    So, if AA are doing something completely egregious and out of line with the other airlines, then go ahead and criticize them. But for this? You all need to get a life…

  20. I wish American learned from United and banned basic economy passengers from bringing a full-size carry-on bag on board.

    Too much time wasted boarding and deplaning costs all of us plenty of $$ — these low-fares shouldn’t be subsidized by everyone else (plus a last-minute full-fare connecting person may not be able to bring their full-size carry-on bag onboard because all the spaces have been taken up by basic economy people).

  21. It’s deregulation — why are you guys complaining?

    You should make sure that it stays this way by voting appropriately in November — actually, a change in administration may finally remove regulations saying that advertising must include taxes and fees. Can’t wait.

  22. @ Gary Leff
    I’d go with both incompetent and evil. This is AA after all.

  23. What’s the fare if you’re a 9 year old girl and an employee is photographing your hoo ha in the lavatory?

    According to AA it’s her fault.


  24. Their website is atrocious. It now takes lots of scrolling and clicking to see any information about your reservation. Want to see a concise summary of your four segment trip – forget it. Want to order a meal and see all of your choices on one screen, not going to happen.

  25. I’m not going to buy basic, so AA doesn’t stand to benefit one but by doing this to me. I really wish I could hide basic fares when I search.

  26. Yeah, the issue is absolutely how they’ve labeled this. If they called their not-basic-economy product something other than “main,” this system works fine. The deception clearly comes when you are told “main” costs one thing, and then are told it costs something more. Obviously this would be illegal under common law, but we all know that airlines get to play by their own rules. It seems that AA wishes to help the government make the case for tighter regulations.

    PS, company PR executives that say a negative change is “based on customer feedback” should be shot on sight.

  27. This is a new low for mainline carriers in the US. A storied carrier like AA tricking customers like this – they must be desperate. Advertising a product for one price then charging more for it: fraud.

  28. Who are the “customers” providing feedback. No one is telling this is a good change.

    Also, the difference between basic economy and main cabin used to be $40. Now its over $80 domestic!

  29. AA is following international standards esp ow partner. Lot of airline are doing that

  30. I was happy to purchase two tickets to Sydney on American Airlines for Christmas at $1900 per ticket…only to find out that I was charged an additional $500 in fees. Is it time to look at Delta?

  31. Two similar issues are the extra seat charges for customers without. Advantage status which may be only available seats when booking, and bag checking fees which for regular roll-aboard bags will be “waived” automatically if the customer delays checking until at the gate.

    The latter one seems like a waiting class action suit to me as an observer.

    Thanks for your publications.

  32. Is Gary confusing cabin with fare class? I don’t see what the big uproar is otherwise.

  33. I knowso oftpu may think I’m crazy but before deregulation, the price was high to fly but you could bring three bags on , check another five , get a free good meal and beer , then smoke a cigarette all before landing
    Today people complain about the cost and that the airlines show the price for every item and allow the customer to choose. Well that’s what the customer wanted and they got it. Now airlines can inflate prices so many hidden ways. Sometimes the old ways are better.

  34. This is a much ado about nothing. It must have been a slow day in blogger land.

  35. It’s a shame to read all the derogatory comments about the once fine American Airlines (and I never worked for them.). I understand it’s not really American Airlines you’re complaining about. Most of us know who is behind the curtain. While I had a lot more respect for AA when it was AMR, it’s unfortunate that the surviving company wasn’t TWA. But Carl Icahn made sure that didn’t happen. Oh for the days when airlines were run by people who loved aviation and not the bean counters and “vulture capitalists.”

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