- I flew basic economy on Delta Air Lines recently. My flight got canceled, but the airline's customer service was truly impressive — in stark contrast to my colleague's recent experience on an ultra-low-cost carrier.
- American Airlines, Delta, and United Airlines have introduced basic economy to compete in price with low-cost airlines.
- Basic-economy fares were widely derided when they debuted in 2016.
I usually avoid basic economy like the plague. The claustrophobic flyer in me doesn't like middle seats. Since traveling on a basic-economy ticket precludes you from preselecting seats, it's usually a no-go for me.
However, I decided to take the plunge and do basic economy on Delta Air Lines for a recent trip to Florida. These flights were operated on a 76-seat regional jet with four seats per row — meaning no middle seats!
Why there's basic economy
There have been few developments in the airline industry as universally derided as basic economy on American Airlines, Delta, and United Airlines.
For America's three legacy airlines, the premise of basic economy is simple: offer a slightly de-contented product at a price point on par with ultra-low-cost carriers like Spirit or Frontier. It's a product designed to not only keep those carriers from infringing on their turf, but do the job without sacrificing the profitability of their traditional economy-class offering.
"If we don't match the lowest fare in a marketplace, we found that we'll lose around 20% of our customers over time," American Airlines CEO Doug Parker said at the Airlines for America summit on Wednesday.
DeltaBasic economy is targeted at a specific band of value-conscious customers for whom price is king. In exchange for super-low prices, passengers give up the ability to board the aircraft early, preselect seats, have free carry-on bags, and enjoy free upgrades to premium cabins. On the upside, once onboard, basic-economy passengers enjoy the same services and amenities as everyone else in the economy cabin.
"It's not for everybody," United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz told Business Insider of basic economy in an interview last year, adding, "It's the economics of matching and competing in markets where the low-cost carriers are offering this type of basic-economy service."
But many consumers didn't quite see it that way. For a lot of us travelers, basic economy felt like an insult — an example of greedy airlines squeezing every remaining drop of blood in their price-conscious customer base in the form of cramped middle seats and carry-on-bag restrictions.
Why basic economy works for me
To me, the business argument for basic economy makes perfect sense. But I have always been a bit skeptical about how the carriers would execute this fare class.
My basic-economy experience didn't go quite as planned.
It was 1 p.m. on the Friday before Labor Day weekend. Six hours before my flight out of John F. Kennedy International Airport was set to take off, I got the text every traveler dreads: Delta Air Lines had canceled my flight. But good news! They've rebooked me on a Saturday-evening flight.