Shades of ‘Titanic’ — Why Do Airlines Think We Want to Travel Third Class?

Harriet Baskas
Nick Gunderson | Getty Images

Want to save money flying one of the 'big three' U.S. airlines? Pack light and don't complain about that middle seat.

That's the takeaway as American Airlines follows the lead of Delta and United and rolls out the details for the Basic Economy fares the carrier begins selling on February 10.

Passengers who purchase American's new "no frills" tickets will not be allowed to use space in the overhead bins. They will be in the last boarding group and their carry-ons will need to fit in the space underneath the seats in front of them.

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As for their seats, passengers who purchase these fares (which will be non-refundable and non-changeable) will not be able to choose a seat ahead of time. Instead, they will have a seat assigned to them at check-in, but they will have the option of paying an additional fee for a seat assignment 48 hours before the flight.

Fliers will earn AAdvantage Miles and Elite Qualifying Dollars for buying these fares, but credits will be earned at a reduced rate.

The Low-Cost Carriers Are Catching Up

American Airlines President Robert Isom said in a statement that the new fare product "gives American the ability to compete more effectively with the growing number of ultra-low cost carriers," such as Spirit, Allegiant Air and Frontier.

However, industry experts worry that some travelers won't read the fine print.

"These passengers will definitely feel dimed when they find out they will pay a penalty when they try to bring on their rollaboard," said Rick Seaney, CEO of FareCompare.

But Seaney said other passengers will like the additional option of a lower, no-frills fare and will "take into account the trade-off in price, convenience, and loyalty."

Good News for Consumers

While each airline has slightly different rules for its Basic Economy fare, the decision of American to join Delta and United in offering these budget fares is, overall, good news for the consumer, said Henry Harteveldt, travel industry analyst and president of the Atmosphere Research Group.

"Not only does this provide more price competition, but thanks to the larger airlines' more extensive schedules, it may be easier for passengers to find low fare flights," he said. It also shows the airlines' willingness "to fight to keep every possible passenger they can, along with every penny of revenue."

To get the best value out of booking a basic economy fare, Seaney says to pack light and take advantage of the option to check a bag for free if you have elite status or a credit card that will defray the fee.

Check in as early as possible and complain quickly if kids under 12 traveling with you are not seated with you, said Seaney. "And be prepared to sit in a middle seat and take 20 minutes to deplane from the back."

Also, don't look for these prices on every route. Seaney expects American's Basic Economy fares to be offered mostly on competitive nonstop routes with a Spirit/Frontier overlap.

While lower fares on some routes may be appreciated by budget-conscious fliers, "Flying under this new fare strata model is evocative of what life must have been like on the Titanic," said George Hobica, founder of "Passengers arranged in first, second, and third class cabins, with third class the equivalent of these new 'basic economy' seats. It gives me an uneasy, sinking feeling realizing that we're not all in the same boat when we fly."