Why The Cheapest Airline Fares May Make You Sick

United Airlines is the most vaccinated airline. That doesn’t make them the most health-friendly airline during the pandemic. Passengers spend more time with other passengers, both in the gate area and on board, than they do with employees.

Both United and American Airlines sell basic economy tickets which are non-changeable. If you get sick and do not fly you lose all value of your ticket. That’s a huge incentive to fly sick. (Delta makes basic economy tickets changeable through December 31, 2021.)

You don’t have to buy a basic economy ticket. For most other domestic tickets and international tickets originating in the U.S. change fees no longer apply, though you’ll still pay any difference in fare to reschedule your trip. That helps make it easier to decide not to fly when you’re sick, which isn’t just good for you but for all the passengers around you that you won’t spread illnesses to.

But choosing to buy a changeable ticket, and avoiding basic economy, doesn’t prevent you from getting sick from other people. And flying an airline that incentivizes other passengers to fly sick by selling tickets that lose all value if they don’t puts you in an environment more likely to have sick people.

Basic economy is how airlines separate out price conscious leisure travelers from price-insensitive business travelers. They want to sell to both – and sell the same seats to both – while making sure they don’t sell a ticket to a business traveler for less than they’re willing to pay. Airlines used to use advantage purchase requirements and Saturday night stays to segment these customers, but those stopped working when low cost carriers weren’t imposing these requirements and legacy airlines had to stop as well to compete. So basic economy restrictions became the new Saturday night stay.

Basic economy restrictions vary. United doesn’t permit bringing on a full-sized carry on bag, or checking in online for basic customers who aren’t checking a bag. American doesn’t offer any credit towards elite status on these fares. Advance seat assignments either aren’t allowed, or comes at a fee. That’s all fair, but the no changes restriction is problematic from a public health standpoint.

And customers who are concerned about their health will want to consider whether to fly an airline that surrounds them with passengers who cannot change their tickets even when they get sick.

Southwest Airlines, of course, doesn’t sell basic economy tickets. All Southwest Airlines tickets were changeable without a fee even before United Airlines and then other U.S. carriers dropped change fees last year. That may make Southwest the preferred carrier for passengers that don’t want to get sick when they fly.

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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. […] I would love to fly only with those that are vaxxed, and by the way only with those that are tested same day (not previous day) as well. However as a matter of public policy this isn’t the best way to manage air travel or the pandemic. Let’s focus on encouraging boosters, fast-tracking multivalent boosters, and on researching next generation vaccines (including pan-coronavirus vaccines). And let’s quickly approve billions of tests, not hundreds of millions, so that we can all test regularly before interacting with others. Airlines might even consider waiving penalties on basic economy tickets for passengers who test positive. […]


  1. @ Gary — Love this…yes, being closer to stupid, unvaccinated people increases your risk of catching their diseases.

  2. Such a sad situation … a truly bone-headed move on the part of the airlines. However, the pax themselves have caused most of the ridiculous restrictions over the years with all their attempted cheating of the system. Now these same jerks are flying while sick and exposing hundreds to whatever’s wrong with them. Just sell tix, airlines, and allow changes without penalty … this is not rocket science.

  3. That’s not entirely true. United allows you to buy out of basic economy to regular economy for the price difference between them. This then allows you to save the value as future flight credit if you want to change to a new flight in the future. It’s basically the modern day equivalent of a change fee.

  4. United has been waiving basic economy restrictions for travel through 12/31/21 ever since they matched Delta a day after Delta made that change.

  5. Robert and Gene appear to be among the gullible who believe that an unvaccinated person is more likely to be a carrier (perhaps asymptomatic) of the Covid-19 virus than a person who is vaccinated. Their belief is likely as unshakeable as that of those who burned witches in Massachusetts years ago.
    Thus, it may be futile to point out that having been vaccinated is no guarantee that one cannot contract Covid-19 and pass it on to another person vaccinated or not.
    Our public health spokespeople have done a terrible job of explaining certain properties of the virus, the nature of the various vaccines and the ineffectiveness of most masks. We all should hope they do a better job when the next pandemic occurs.

  6. Vazir, of course there are breakthrough cases. Since day one we were told there would be. Even at their best, the vaccines only have a 95% efficacy, and that wanes over time. You know what has a 0% efficacy against covid-19? Not getting vaccinated and not wearing a mask. You know who doesn’t transmit covid-19? People who haven’t acquired it.

    It has been proven a plethora of different times and a multitude of different ways that an unvaccinated person IS more likely to be a carrier of covid-19. Argue about long-term safety of the vaccines all you want, but comparing the transmission rates of vaxxed vs unvaxxed isn’t debatable, regardless of how many vaxxed are covid positive.

    (September 15th 2021)

    “…data show fully vaccinated persons are less likely than unvaccinated persons to acquire SARS-CoV-2, and infections with the Delta variant in fully vaccinated persons are associated with less severe clinical outcomes. Infections with the Delta variant in vaccinated persons potentially have reduced transmissibility than infections in unvaccinated persons, although additional studies are needed.”

    We’d have more respect for you if you quit trying to justify your choices and were just honest:
    a. You think you’ll be fine if you contract covid-19
    b. You’re hesitant of taking a vaccine without long-term historical data
    c. You don’t really care how your choices effect others

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