What to expect from airlines’ new “last” class section

A new class of service coming to an aircraft near you: “basic” economy — also known by its street names, “economy minus” or “last class.”

The product, already offered by discount carriers and one major airline, could intensify what critics have called the airline industry’s race to the bottom, an effort to cut amenities and services in order to satisfy bargain-hungry passengers and boost profits. Two more airlines say they’re on the verge of introducing their own version of a “basic” economy fare, and customers are bracing for it.

Until now, economy class passengers on America’s legacy carriers — American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines — could expect a minimum level of service and amenities. Those included:

    • Seats with at least 30 inches of “pitch” between them, a rough measure of legroom.
    • The ability to change a reservation after paying a fee.
    • The option to upgrade to a better seat.

That’s about to end. Last year, Delta Air Lines introduced a “basic” economy class fare systemwide, which quietly removed some of the features of a traditional economy class ticket, including the ability to change a ticket, upgrade to a better seat, or secure an advance seat assignment. Delta began testing “basic” fares in 2012.

The two remaining legacy airlines recently announced plans to follow suit. In an earnings call in late October, Scott Kirby, American Airlines’ president, announced the world’s largest carrier had plans to develop “a product that’s competitive on price with ultra-low-cost carriers.”

Kirby said the product would have “less frills” and a “really cheap price.” Last month, American pledged to bring the product to market during the first half of 2016, but declined to offer details.

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Meanwhile, United Airlines announced similar plans, but didn’t indicate when it planned to roll out its new economy class product.

“Over time, we’d like to give customers greater ability to choose fares that offer a varied set of amenities, whether they be fares that include multiple options or deeply discounted fares that would simply include the ticket,” United spokesman Jonathan Guerin said. “This would better permit our customers to choose their own mix of fares and frills, and better enable us to compete with carriers that offer no-frills service.”

What would economy “minus” look like?

Delta’s foray into a reduced economy class product only reveals part of the big picture. When it introduced “basic” economy last year, the airline disclosed an interesting but underreported fact: “Basic” fares were yesterday’s economy class fares — the same tickets that could be changed and upgraded. In other words, Delta didn’t create a new discounted class of fare; it simply removed some of the amenities from its existing economy class tickets.

Delta suggested it’s is just giving price-conscious customers what they want.

“It’s popular in that it gives customers who are price sensitive but not concerned with seat choice exactly what they are looking for,” said Anthony Black, a Delta spokesman. “Customers enjoy knowing with Delta Basic Economy they’re getting a competitive price, free sodas and coffee, snacks, movies, SkyMiles and Delta’s excellent operational service.”

Delta didn’t go as far as some observers expected, which is to create another class of service in the back of the plane that consumer advocates have referred to as economy “minus.” Instead, the airline announced it was remodeling its economy class sections, to the relief of many passengers.

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But the concept of a stripped-down coach class section isn’t far-fetched, and Delta may yet try it. The “ultra” low-cost carriers Kirby referred to in his conference call, Spirit Airlines and Allegiant Air, operate aircraft with up to two inches less legroom which, while legal, is widely considered to be on the fringe of humane.

The new economy class

Major airlines like American, Delta and United are testing their passengers’ limits.

Are travelers willing to sacrifice the ability to change a ticket or get an advance seat assignment for the same low economy class fare they used to pay? Delta’s experience suggests the answer is “yes.”

Are they willing to put up with less legroom or the ability to carry a bag on the plane in exchange for a small discount? Allegiant’s and Spirit’s experience suggests the answer is also “yes.”

It would be hard to imagine the new economy “minus” section looking much different from this:

✓ The industry’s smallest airline seats — between 28 and 30 inches of seat pitch.

✓ No itinerary changes or refunds.

✓ No “free” carry-on bag.

✓ Meals, snacks, sodas and entertainment are extra.

✓ No advance seat assignments.

While the new economy class sections are likely to appeal to some passengers, they will probably come as a troubling development to a majority of air travelers. In his comments to investors, Kirby suggested that more than half of American’s passengers would be willing to book a “basic” ticket because they are not frequent travelers, aren’t interested in a premium product, don’t want to pay for the American brand, and are not necessarily interested in a “better” experience. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they desire a bare-bones version of economy class that competes with the two airlines with the worst customer-service reputations in the business.

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Observers are also worried that the expansion of “basic” economy class products could, over time, widen an already significant class divide in the air. Major airlines have already moved the seats closer together; at times, in order to install more luxurious, lie-flat seats in the front. And while passengers generally don’t have a problem paying more for a better seat, they’re uncomfortable with being punished because they wanted to pay less.

New "basic" economy sections are:

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at chris@elliott.org. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

  • NotThatBrooklynGuy

    No need to make up a new name like ‘last class’ or ‘economy minus’. Just reach back a little bit in history to the time when people traveled by ship and call it ‘steerage’.

  • Tricia K

    Granted Delta has been pretty upfront about what these tickets don’t offer (when they first introduced the concept, they gave you a warning that if you agreed to the fare that these were the things you would give up) but they havent given much in the way of “ammenities” to coach passengers in a long time. A bag of peanuts and a half a Coke dont really seem like much of an amenity to me. And even when you pay for their economy comfort seats where they sell you back the four inches they took from you in the first place (I have to choose this option as I can’t sit in the other seats with double knee replacements), you get free alcohol and maybe a banana, plus the right to select your seat. They still charge you for your luggage and you are allowed to make changes to your flight, but you will pay a $200-300 per ticket penalty. I know they claim customers don’t mind the sacrifices for the lesser fare, but it’s just a matter of time before those passengers end up here begging for a refund for their completely non-refundable seats.

  • doug_jensen

    I have always found it ironic that so many (usually very infrequent) fliers want to pinch every penny and are willing to suffer the unpleasant consequences–but still complain about getting only what they are willing to pay for. Then at their destination, that attitude does not carry over to their accommodations or dining–they may be price-conscious but not obsessive about costs. I realize I am in the minority, but to me the flight is an important part of my trip, and I want and will pay for it to be a comfortable part, meaning at least Business if not First Class. I am coming up on 4 million butt-in-seat (no fake purchasing non-flight) miles on AA.

  • TestJeff Pierce

    CUSTOMER DESIGNED “Economy Product”: Here’s what I often do…since I am in Group 4 usually (business travel I might add), when it is boarding time I will ask people around me…”Have they announced Group 87 yet?” I then explain it’s a new class the airline should have.

    By choosing Group 87, I get a discount on my fare. The airline can either put me in standing room only to hang onto straps in the aisle, or hand out goggles and scarfs for the “open air” seating.

  • Alan Gore

    Why have seats at all in Last (Fare code Z)? Passengers could cling to cargo netting in an unadorned fuselage amid miscellaneous freight, like Marines flying home on a C-5.

  • Michael__K

    1) Eliminate the loophole which exempts ancillary fees from the 7.5% airfare tax. Otherwise carriers who offer $9 fares with nothing included are at a government-subsidized advantage.

    2) Require carriers to publish all their ancillary fees as well as any amenities/restrictions that are tied to a fare (legroom, changes, advance seat assignments, etc.) to all distribution systems (including GDS). Only then will search engines have the ability (if they choose to, which they inevitably will) to implement functionality for customers to select what they wish to include with their purchase and calculate their actual all-in costs.

    3) Require for all ancillary fees (not just checked baggage fees) to be locked in according to the disclosures provided at the time of the purchase.

    4) Mandatory compensation for promised amenities not provided (downgrades, paid seat assignments, etc.)

    With these changes, the free market will eliminate much of the nonsense by itself. Today, we have a warped market that is designed to confuse passengers and obfuscate the true cost of travel.

  • AirlineEmployee

    “Over time, we’d like to give customers greater ability to choose fares that offer a varied set of amenities, whether they be fares that include multiple options or deeply discounted fares that would simply include the ticket,” United spokesman Jonathan Guerin said. “This would better permit our customers to choose their own mix of fares and frills, and better enable us to compete with carriers that offer no-frills service.”
    “Delta suggested it’s just giving price conscious customers what they want”
    Talk about raising the ire of passengers. Apparently airlines are deaf when it comes to complaints about comfort……and when was the last time any of you readers were polled as to what YOU wanted ? Right, never.

    I’ve been working at ticket counters and gates for 30+ years and NEVER have any customers said to me they were willing to pay lower fares to give up minimal seat room, entertainment that you have to pay for, or simple amenities (like snacks).

    Can’t stand it that the airlines dump the (already made by them) “decision” on passengers claiming either this is what YOU want, we are listening to YOU and YOU want this and we’re doing YOU a big favor by offering options (horrible options, no choice options)…. Meantime my management expects me to raise the bar with over-the-top “awesome” customer service (though I agree with smiling and thanking the customer). But, that smile and thank you is not going to be a “feel good” experience on your 8-hour flight to Honolulu with no snacks, bring-your-own-entertainment and cramped seats.

  • Chris Johnson

    This is really not much different than when United had its low-cost subsidiary called Ted, Delta had Song and USAirways had Metrojet. None of those airlines worked out well for any of the legacy airlines – all they did was cannibalize their profits, when some customers of the respective legacy airline shifted over to the low-cost sister airlines (it did not seem to win them any new customers or take any away from Southwest or Jetblue). Here they’re simply doing the same strategy on the existing airplanes and I have a hard time believing it will win them new customers either, but what do I know. Sounds like just another way to take away what little economy customers get and charge the same fares.

  • Lindabator

    Since folks KEEP buying LLC fares, and have gladly saved $20 bucks for the basic economy, shows the airlines that no matter how much folks gripe, when all is said and done, they ALWAYS go for cheap — sad, but true.

  • AJPeabody

    No one ever went broke by underestimating the American public.

  • cscasi

    I wonder what would happen is you requested consideration under the ADA. The airlines are required to accommodate those passengers who have various medical issues. If you cannot sit in a seat with less pitch because of your knees, they should put you in a seat with more pitch. Of course, I am sure it won’t be a seat of your choosing (meaning you can’t be sure you and your wife/friends/traveling companions will be seated next to you. They will most likely have to sit in the seats with less pitch unless they upgrade.
    But, it is a thought, if you want to assert your right as having a “disability”.

  • cscasi

    I respect your view. However, there are those who cannot afford business/first class fares and especially if they are traveling as a family. That aside, there is no reason that the airlines need to keep squeezing the seat pitch and width way past the point it should be. After all, many people are not, for example, 5′ 4″ and weigh 90 pounds and can sit in those ever shrinking seats. I know, it would mean raising fares (or so the airlines swear they would have to do), but so be it. I know people want cheap fares, but there has to be a happy medium. People also want to feel somewhat comfortable on their flights and not need to go and see a massage therapist or chiropractor after every flight.

  • cscasi

    Interesting picture. However, the C-5 does have 70 or 72 passenger seats in the top section and then troops are being flown in the cargo section, they do have troop seats that are normally installed on pallet sections or they can use web seating along the sides. Still, I see your point. Touche!

  • cscasi

    Well said. Passengers just need to keep hounding their Senators and Representatives (who seldom seem to represent the people in anything they do) and the DOT, demanding that they get off their posh chairs, out of their offices and actually legislate a fix or create a rule to fix these issues.

  • MarkKelling

    Sure, no one wants a ticket when described like that, yet people constantly purchase the lowest possible price ticket. The airlines will offer these seats (claiming they are lower cost but when all the necessary extras are added in probably are not lower cost than other options) and people will buy them without fail.

  • Patrica

    I do purchase a higher cost ticket that will get me there sooner, has less stay overs in airports, etc., for my entire adult family. What recourse do I have when the airline changes the scheduling, or drops a plane out and re-routes us so the trip takes two times as long? One trip back from Hawaii took 18 hours. I am 5 ft. tall, 93 lbs… and my lower back was in severe pain for two weeks after.

  • Éamon deValera

    This will make flying Spirit or Frontier a pleasure.

  • Éamon deValera

    Lets not eliminate anything that exempts anything from tax.

  • doug_jensen

    I understand and that makes sense. And yet the passengers consistently choose low fares over every other factor, so the airlines are doing whatever it takes to lower the fares. You can’t have your cake and eat it too, so to speak.

  • Michael__K

    You want non-flyers to subsidize flyers even more than they already do?

  • doug_jensen

    Don’t misunderstand my comment as a “let them eat cake” one. I completely understand from my own experience that one’s budget often (usually) cannot cover the price of what one wants. Rather, I was noting that there are travelers–including some who can afford Business and First Class–but who do not value the flying experience at any price in any class. They value the experience of an extravagantly priced hotel, and extravagantly priced meals, at their destination. But they seek to save pennies at the cost of uncomfortable flying, as if there was no relationship between the two. The airlines are giving those passengers what they want.

  • KanExplore

    I don’t see anything in the plans that would require anyone to buy that class of service if they don’t want to. It’s simply another choice for those who would be interested. I’d love to see it offered in my market, where we don’t have Spirit or Frontier. At comparable fares, I could just about take off when and where I want on American or United. I’d love to be able to fly at Spirit fares on a major carrier with frequent service.

  • KanExplore

    But many of us don’t want that. We want cheap airfares. And many who don’t admit it, want cheap airfares too. I have not understood why those of you who want to pay more for more amenities should be able to deny cheap seats for those of us willing to do without the amenities.

  • John McDonald

    airlines are only providing what lots of people want. Just because a few people here don’t like it, means nothing. People are voting with their wallets & large numbers want cheap. They just have to get used to idea, that cheap means little or no checked luggage, limit or no food/drinks on flights.
    It actually costs a fortune to get food & drinks on aircraft, especially in USA with all the ridiculous, useless & unnecessary so called security.

  • judyserienagy

    This probably won’t generate much positive change … people booking these cheapest fares will still scream and yell when they are punished because they didn’t follow the rules. They didn’t follow the rules because they didn’t read the rules.

    They’ll make up all kinds of reasons as to why they are the exception and deserve better. Airline customer service will be much worse than it is now. The complaints will skyrocket but the number of customer service reps will stay the same.

  • Éamon deValera

    You do realize that not collecting a tax from one person does not obligate the government to impose it on another. It is indeed possible for government to function while taking less of our money.

  • Michael__K

    So what’s your proposed budget for aviation safety, security, enforcement, and infrastructure? And who pays for it when all the carriers adopt $9 fares with sky-high ancillary fees? What passenger fatality rate would you tolerate?

    You do realize that aviation taxes in the U.S. are substantially lower than in some other jurisdictions, especially Europe? And yet Europeans pay less for their flights on a tax-inclusive basis because they have more competition for their business and more excess airport capacity.

  • Tammi Tanaka

    @Eamon deValera: Possible for government to function while taking less? Yes; Likely to happen? Lolololololol. Not in our lifetimes

  • Jim

    That’s a great perspective. I haven’t seen anyone put it quite like that before. While I agree with some of the other responses below that a family of four will probably not be able to fly first class, would they not take the same view of the hotel?

    I mean it’s expensive to stay in a hotel near the attraction you are flying to see. So why not book a motel for $100/night less in a seedy part of town and pay for cabs back and forth? And then we can go get take out for dinner from the deli down the street that gets robbed twice a week!

    While I agree that the airlines are taking economy class under the barrel (instead of scraping the bottom), I can appreciate your point of view.

  • KanExplore

    I think a key is what prices would be displayed in searches – the “regular” price or the no frills “price”? They could control it at their own website by giving the visitor price options much as hotel might for its different rooms and packages. However, for those using third party search engines, which would show up, and how would it be labeled? I like the no frills idea in principle, but I think some standardization in how prices are displayed is going to be important. The consumer should be able to know right away what the fare type is, and that could be a problem.

  • Steve Rabin

    And this will not affect only leisure travelers. I work for a Fortune 50 company, and their travel policy is the “lowest logical airfare”. Any upselling would be on our dime, not the company’s, even though the business traveler is the one inconvenienced.

  • Dave N

    If all of the airlines would just refuse to offer these fares passengers would adapt. There comes a time when people wanting to save 5 dollars on an airfare are just making the travel experience miserable for everyone.

  • JewelEyed

    I doubt that’s true at all. It’s security theater, why would they do something that would cost the airline money? :P

  • The Cosmic Avenger

    Well, I agree with doug_jensen’s thesis, which at its core is “you get what you pay for”, but the difference is that a week in a different hotel would be a $700 difference, while the price difference for even two first-class tickets would probably be about 10 times that amount. And the time difference is inverse, about 10 times as much time will be spent in the hotel as it will on the plane, leading to a roughly 100x difference in value per dollar spent.

    I’m making a LOT of assumptions here, about time and money, but if anyone wants to argue my hypothetical, please note that you’ll have to invert my assumptions, not just argue their scale, in order to really invalidate my premise. E.g., is the flight that much more of your trip than the hotel?

  • The Cosmic Avenger

    I’m sure everyone here knows, but we should never forget that we pretty much HAD most of point #2 enacted into law 2012, and the bottom feeders in Congress rolled it back in 2014.

  • BMG4ME

    I am sure I’ve seen this one before and commented on it. In any case this isn’t a new class of service, it’s a new class of ticket for the same class of service. They are giving you a low fare carrier fare in return for zero flexibility. They give you the option to avoid such a fare if you want to.

  • BMG4ME

    They are not making it miserable for everyone. They are making it miserable for those that want to pay basic economy fares, which are less than the standard economy fares. Anyone that doesn’t want to be subjected to the restrictions, someone like me, pays the next highest fare and gets all the benefits they are used to.

  • BMG4ME

    That’s always the case anyway. Even if you buy a more flexible economy fare, the Fortune 50 company isn’t going to pay for your better seat if you choose to upgrade. The only people this would affect are elite flyers that would otherwise get the better seats for free if they are on a more flexible fare. I flew a lot on business after the E fares on Delta and I never saw the E fares offered.

  • LonnieC

    Chris, you have to promise not to advocate for anyone who buys a lastclass ticket and then – for ANY reason – wants to cancel and get a refund. Caveat emptor!

  • LonnieC

    Part of the problem is that the difference between a plain vanilla hotel and a very nice one may be in the range of $150/night. And that could be for two people. The difference (I’ve paid this much) between coach and business class can be $3-4,000+ or more. That’s why I feel that there should be minimum, basic size standards, so that the choice is cost, not relative luxury or torture.

  • Pocahontas

    Yup. I’m really getting where, if I can’t drive, I don’t go. Between the three hours early I have to leave for the airport; the hassle from TSA; flight delays; issues with luggage; spending the entire flight shoehorned into a tiny space (and on Southwest, which now has taller seat backs, as a 5’5″ person I can’t see out. I’ve never been a scared flyer, but the claustrophobia is now nearly overwhelming.) Can’t believe an industry that cheerfully accepts billions in our tax subsidies every year (TSA, FAA, etc.) is allowed to get away with this.

    In contrast, I can usually rent a car for a week for around $150, and gas is now under $2 a gallon. Much cheaper, much more relaxing.

  • 42NYC

    I flew TPA->LGA yesterday (a leisure heavy route where Delta offers their Basic Economy service).

    I had my seat in Comfort Plus (free due to status but otherwise would have cost $39, roughly a 20% surcharge on my original ticket). Basic Economy was not an option for us due to traveling with children and not wanting to risk being apart.

    I heard more than one person talking about Basic Economy fares while waiting for the flight. Their tone seemed to be that they appreciated the lower fares. ie: “I saved $20 on my flight by sitting in the way back, but i’d probably be cramped in the way back anyways” Whether its clever marketing or a true bargain is the real question I suppose, but everyone who bought it seems happy.

    And i’d still wager that if Delta offered an additional $10 of savings to be stuck in the last row and not get a comp. soft drink and pretzels, many people would take them up on it.

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