We All Lose When AA Sells “Basic Economy” Seats on International Flights


When I first saw the headline that American Airlines planned soon to roll out its barebones basic economy fares on international flights, I shrugged with haughty indifference: I’d never buy a seat that came without the ability to actually pick the seat so what does this matter to me?

A few days later the horror set in: I will be impacted powerfully. So will you.

Watch just about every carrier pile into this. Delta of course has offered basic economy to Europe for some time.  United now is saying it will be on board with this later this year. Of course all the legacy carriers want to combat WOW, Norwegian and any other no frills carrier with an eye on US international routes. And they’ve decided basic economy is the card to play.

Basic economy international is trending.  And now that I get what’s going on, I want to scream.

Okay, if you fly upfront, none of this much impacts you. But I hear of fewer and fewer organizations that pay for upfront seats, not even on international flights. Sure, I think that’s pennywise (especially with ever better sleeping possibilities upfront) – but I am not and never have been a corporate accountant so nobody on the highest floors is listening to me about this.

And all the rest of us now have to wrestle with Basic Economy’s spread into international travel.

AA spells out the rules regarding its international basic economy here.  There are changes from the US basic economy” fare, notably passengers to Europe do get to check a bag, gratis.  International basic economy passengers also get to use the overhead bin, unlike AA domestic basic economy passengers.

Here’s the one big difference between “Basic Economy” and standard economy for international travelers: “Seat assignments: Free seat assignments are made automatically when customers check in. Customers flying trans-Atlantic Basic Economy can purchase a seat assignment at any time.”

That means they can’t pick a seat when they book the flight a few weeks, or months, out.

Why this impacts us is that – I’m sure you do likewise- when picking a seat I study the seating maps and occupancy, looking especially for empty middle seats next to the aisle seat I always pick.

Often I’ll review my choices a day or two before travel.

Now I have no way of knowing if I have the right seat because middle seats will fill in as the basic economy passengers check in and many of them, count on it, will check in not long before boarding.

My entire system for picking slightly more comfortable seats to Europe is in jeopardy.

Look at the seat map for the AA 757-200.

The 767-300at least has the rows of two seats on the aisles. But picking that aisle seat does not give me an empty seat next to me which is what I want.

Worse: on domestic flights a growing number of corporate travel policies have nudged employees into buying basic economy -or upgrading on their own nickel.  Expect to see similar on flights overseas. Some companies are blocking basic economy but know that others are embracing the perceived savings.

That means there’s a probability that you may find yourself steered into basic economy on an international flight.

What a horror show.

Honestly, I never much missed flying upfront on flights to Europe because when you picked the right seat, on the right flight, there was a high chance of a lot of personal privacy in the back, maybe even more than in business class upfront.

I think those days are just about over however and what we are looking at is the high probability of planes with every seat filled even in coach on international flights.

Know too that upgrades are not possible, regardless of your elite status, when you fly basic economy internationally.

And you board in the 8th group – after everybody else. (Exceptions are made for those with elite status and who bought tickets with certain AA credit cards.)

Basic economy of course also is a scam.  Yes, ticket prices are a little lower – but the evidence is plain that the carriers are making that up with a raft of fees.  In a recent quarter passengers paid $1.2 billion in baggage fees alone – a new record. Delta even has yanked the free checked bag and now wants $60 for that luggage to accompany you to Europe when you fly basic economy.

The worst news is that there really is no alternative to flying when it comes to Europe. From my Phoenix base, I can – and probably will – drive to Las Vegas and Los Angeles. But I sure am not going to drive to Paris.

What should business travelers do about basic economy in international travel? Start by flatly refusing to fly it when an employer asks – and point out that the “economy” often is a false promise.

And begin agitating for employers to pay for upgraded seating because, really, the days of gaming the system to nab a better economy seat on international flights is coming to a close.

The game is over, the carriers have won.





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