American Rolls Out Basic Economy With a Slightly Softer But Blunter Approach

When United rolled out Basic Economy last year, it got a lot of flak for how it handled it (including some right her on the blog). Yesterday, , and I was waiting to see how it would go. The product is fairly similar to that of United with a couple key differences that soften the impact. But it’s the way that American has positioned this that I appreciate. The airline isn’t mincing words.

Much of what American is doing will sound a lot like United’s plan. Here’s a chart from the airline’s website.

Ok, so the last two aren’t real, but the rest should look familiar. That’s no surprise. After all, remember, United’s new President used to have that job at American. I would be surprised if there weren’t similarities. But does any of this differ from what United has done? Yes. Here are the big differences.

  • At United, you get your seat at check-in no matter what. At American, you will be able to pay for Preferred or Main Cabin Extra seats within 48 hours of travel. Whether that cost will be the same as what everyone pays is unknown, but at least there is that way out if you freak out about not having a seat assignment and want to do something… if seats are still available 48 hours out.
  • At United, you can’t earn any elite qualifying miles or dollars. At American, you will earn elite qualifying dollars based on what you paid. You’ll also earn half credit for elite qualifying miles and segments.
  • At United, this is being rolled out aggressively (Update: United just announced that it will start it in Minneapolis and go slowly). At American, the airline is starting slow with just 10 markets going on sale when it launches sometime in February. I don’t know what those markets are, but I would assume they’ll be a mix of different types so they can evaluate and phase in additional markets depending upon how that goes.
  • At United, if there is a coach seat available, there will also be a Basic Economy seat for sale at a lower fare. At American, Basic Economy fares will not always be available, even if coach fares are.

These may be relatively minor differences, but it makes the introduction come across as more thoughtful and measured. The carries that through even further. In the letter, Robert doesn’t mince words and he doesn’t pretend this is something it’s not. I think my favorite line is “It’s not a new discount, it’s a new set of features for our lowest fares.” Now I can’t say I’d call them “features” in this situation ( it calls them “attributes,” but if you read the whole letter, the point is made well. American feels it needs to be competitive with lower cost carriers, but it can’t do that without offering a bare bones product. This is that product, and it’s not coming at a discount. Love it or hate it, you at least know what’s going on.

As with United, I can’t really fully judge this until we see the fares in the market in February, but overall I just like the way the roll-out is being handled… at least so far. Admittedly, American would have had it easier than United no matter what since United was the first to yank carry-on bags. But the tone seems less patronizing here, and many of the questions that came up during United’s launch have been addressed. For example:

Will families that include young children be seated together?
As it does today, American’s reservations system will check for families traveling with children 13 and under a few days before the flight, and attempt to seat each child with an adult. This is the same process we follow for Main Cabin customers.

That’s something that has a lot of people concerned, and it’s good to know that someone at American is actually thinking about it before launch.

Does this mean I’ll be buying a Basic Economy fare from American? Heck no. I want my window seat, and I want to carry on my bag. This isn’t for me regardless of the airline that puts it out there. Even if I did like the idea of Basic Economy, Delta would easily be my first choice between the three. That airline still allows carry-on bags. But I do see the value of this kind of product, and I think American has certainly done a good job of explaining what it’s all about.

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