Basic economy fares are unavoidable in air travel, and they're here to stay. When U.S. airlines started selling these no-frills fares back in 2013, carriers billed them as a money-saver for travelers: “Give up a bag and a seat assignment, and you can get your ticket for cheaper!”
The truth has been just the opposite. Basic economy ticket prices have generally taken the place of main cabin fares, which have gone up. You're paying the same as you used to and getting less.
And now that Delta has rolled out basic economy awards to many domestic U.S. flights, it seems a similar story is playing out. Of course, Delta's unpredictable SkyMiles pricing makes that hard to nail down.
But in general, it looks as though Delta is selling basic economy award fares for roughly the same amount of miles it once charged for a main cabin fare. As a reminder, Delta basic economy fares don't allow you to pick your seat, board the plane last, and aren't eligible for Delta Medallion status upgrades.
Delta Basic Economy Award Prices
Here's a quick example. This time last year, you could easily snag a seat flying from Seattle (SEA) to Denver (DEN) for just 5,550 SkyMiles. While Delta fares can jump all over the place, this was a reliable price. And this was a standard economy award fare.
And now, you can't even find the exact same flight in basic economy for less than 6,000 SkyMiles. You're using more SkyMiles, and getting less.
It was once easy to book a main cabin award from New York City-JFK (JFK) to San Francisco (SFO) as low as 9,500 SkyMiles each way. Now, that seems to be the base price for a basic economy ticket. And a main cabin award seat is pricing out 3,000 SkyMiles higher or more.
These are just two examples, but there are plenty more. And certainly, there are likely some examples where you can book a basic economy award for fewer SkyMiles.
But it seems clear that Delta is following the trend that airlines already set when selling basic economy cash fares. With SkyMiles or cash, these fares aren't actually cheaper.
Perhaps it's no surprise, but it's still disappointing to see Delta's basic economy award pricing tend this way. Just a year ago, you could get a full-blown economy fare for the same amount of SkyMiles it now takes to get a no-frills basic economy award.
And in the “monkey-see, monkey-do” world of aviation, that's bad news. Because while Delta is the first major airline to sell basic economy awards, it's only a matter of time before United, American, and others follow suit.