As the candidates in America’s presidential race pontificate on the growing divide between the haves and the have-nots, the country’s airlines are busy segmenting customers between the haves, the have-lesses, the have-somewhats, the have-nots and, now, the have-nothing-at-alls.
Airlines have long seen profitability in investing heavily in first- and business-class while degrading the flying experience in coach to cut costs. But why stop there? Coach, they have discovered, can itself be subdivided, and then subdivided again. First there was the creation of premium economy, which charges passengers extra for what used to be a standard amount of legroom, and for the exit-row seats that were previously the dominion of in-the-know flyers. Now there is a new class, a cut below standard economy. Please welcome “basic economy”, known to some as “last class”.
Delta was the first big airline to introduce basic economy, and it refined it last year as one of its five fare classes. Now United and American have both announced that they will be debuting their versions of basic economy later this year.
So what is basic economy? For frugal travelers, it’s shorthand for giving up some of the few remaining comforts of flying economy. The biggest sacrifice is losing the ability to reserve a seat when booking a flight (so be prepared for a middle seat in the back row). If you are travelling with family or colleagues, forget about sitting together. Passengers flying basic economy also forfeit their right to upgrade their seats and to change or cancel their reservations more than 24 hours after booking.