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American is Pulling a Bait & Switch with Basic Economy Fares

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Basic economy has spread like the plague among the major U.S. airlines, luring in consumers with the cheapest price … in exchange for a bunch of restrictions. But now, American Airlines is taking things a step further. 

American Airlines has begun hiding these bare-bones fares under the cover of a regular “Main” cabin ticket in its search results online at AA.com and on its smartphone app. So while you'll initially see a $337 price tag on this roundtrip flight from Phoenix (PHX) to Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW) explicitly labeled as a main cabin ticket, click through and you'll see that's for an American Airlines basic economy fare – that better main cabin fare actually costs another $60.


american basic fares


It’s unclear exactly when this happened, but it appears to be somewhat recent. And it's the new norm across American’s entire network, whether you’re searching for an American Airlines flight within the U.S. and many abroad, too – including even partner airlines like British Airways and others.

American Airlines defended these changes, saying their new dropdown display gives travelers a better way to compare what you get and what you don't from their many different fares – and that since making these changes, the volume of customer questions and complaints about basic economy has decreased.

“Based on customer feedback, we’ve made strides in the last few months to simplify the booking experience on aa.com by grouping fares by cabin and then providing customers the option to click down to view details of various fare offerings in each cabin,” a spokesperson said. “Our updated, more intuitive display shows first the options for Main Cabin or Premium Cabin, before then guiding the customer through each fare product within the respective cabin to provide more clarity to our customers on the type of fare they may choose to purchase, and the benefits that come with it.”

Still, it's a major departure for how the rest of the airline industry displays and sells its many different types of tickets: Carriers like Delta and United break out basic economy under its own bucket, separate from main cabin tickets and other fare classes. That's what American did previously, too. 

American could have solved any unnecessary confusion with this change by labeling their cheapest of the two initial options “Economy” – or listing the higher-priced main cabin fare at first before leading flyers to the drop-down menu with more choices. They didn’t.


airlines change and cancellation fees


So if you ask us, this is a negative change for consumers.

Just like every other airline, American's basic economy fares are far worse than a standard economy ticket: You can't select a seat or cancel your flight without paying extra fees, you board the plane last, and you'll earn half (or less) the miles and credits toward AAdvantage status. 

When you search for airfare on American's website or app now, you'll be presented with just two different cabin types: Main and Premium. That's a cleaner display compared to the four-plus fare options that American previously listed – including basic economy.


AA MIA-BOS roundtrip


But once you click on that option, you'll see that the lower price is actually for the airline's most restrictive basic economy ticket. If you want to pick your own seat without fees or change your ticket, you'll have to pay more for the main cabin ticket you were initially shown. 


AA Different Fare Types


The same is true when searching for flights on AA's mobile app. 


aa mobile app


It didn't always work this this way. And it's vastly different from how American's competitors display their fares.

Just look at how Delta does it. The Atlanta-based airline invented these basic economy fares more than a decade ago, but at least they're clearly displayed in the initial search results. Unlike American's search results, Delta isn't hiding its basic economy fares behind a second click. 


Delta MSP FLL different fare types


Nor does United: One search is all it takes to see all of the available fare types and prices from the very start. 


United MCO-BOS different fare types


Even American's Oneworld partner carrier, Alaska Airlines, has a more honest breakdown of its fare pricing. 


alaska fare classes


This isn't isolated to certain routes or only domestic flights, either. Everywhere you search on American's website and mobile app, you'll initially see the option to book a main cabin ticket or a premium ticket. But it isn't until you choose one of them that you see the real cost of a main cabin fare is nearly $50 more. 


AA DFW-CUN fare types


And it even carries over to many routes where you can book one of American Airlines' partner carriers, like this flight from Chicago (ORD) to London-Heathrow (LHR) on British Airways. In fact, it's even worse on those long-haul international routes: What's initially billed as a $696 charge for a main cabin fare vaults to $896.


aa basic british airways


This could go hand-in-hand with a major expansion of American's fare classes. 

While you might see just economy and first class on the plane, American sells a handful of bundles with different perks under names like “Main Plus” or “Main Select” on many routes. The airline actually introduced those fares years ago, but they seem to have expanded far beyond a select few, business-heavy routes where they initially cropped up for sale. 


Bottom Line

American Airlines recently changed up how it displays fares on its website and its mobile app, too. And it sure feels like a bait and switch to us.

The airline is labeling its cheapest basic economy prices as main cabin fares. It isn't until you click through to pick your ticket that you'll see the cost of that main cabin fare you thought you were buying is actually another $60 – or much, much more – roundtrip.


Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

14 Responses

  • Very bad ethics here and unfortunately! I believe US airlines are fighting really hard not to be transparency.

  • Good article. Wish I read it a week ago. PHX to LHR. I got a Premium Economy seat paid a little extra so I could select my seat. Come to find out that it’s a British Airways flight and had to buy the seat anyway. Not cool American.

    • Same thing happened to us with our trip in September. We had to fly a leg with Iberia and even though we had purchased AA Premium Econ we had to pay extra for seats etc. We fly almost exclusivley with AA but this put a sour taste in our mouths.

  • I’m unclear about one point with AA basic economy… cabin luggage. Can you carry on a rollaboard on AA in basic economy? I always thought no, as with United, you had to check it as a bag, but my 90 yo aunt found a fare description online that seems to indicate you can.

    If so, I’m not shocked by the B&S in fare advertising. Google flights routinely lists the basic fare in searches then you find out the regular main cabin fare is not that. I’d certainly expect to get relegated to a middle seat in basic… the cost of seat selection being often close to the fare difference for regular main cabin anyway. Unless some AI pricing algorithm is launching a fire sale on basic for a largely unsold flight.

    • Yes, you can bring a rollaboard carry-on bag with an AA basic economy ticket. American previously banned it – just like United – but changed that policy way back in 2018, thankfully.

  • AA Bait & Switch is even worse with international travel: they advertised and let me reserve a trip to Europe for a price and then 3h after booking direct to contact customer care and bump up the price to almost 3x. Filed a FAA complaint on that practice…

  • What a complete nd utter NON STORY. They simply display the same as the other airlines in a different fashion. Bait and Switch it is not.

  • This is disgusting and a primary reason for full transparent upfront one size fits all pricing. We have moved beyond ‘unbundling’ to a point of obvious bait and switch. So infuriating.

    It’s a good thing they are suing the government because the new price transparency rules would make it too confusing for consumers? Not sure how…but okay.

  • Why would anyone in their right mind fly American Airlines?

    I’d rather walk, first.

    God awful airline. United not far behind.

    • Amen to this reply. I booked a AA flight 6 week’s ahead. Two weeks before the flight, I got emails asking if I could take a flight on a different day. On my return flight they closed the flight early so I sat 6 hours and they changed my ticket three times. Not a fan of AA.

  • This practice is extremely deceptive and further degrades opportunities for customer loyalty. Shame on you American –you continue to take two steps forward and five steps back.

  • Worse airline always looking to scam you because they can,plain and simple.if you want to fly,they figure you will pay!!!by the way when they cancel a flight and you are immensely inconvenienced and it cost a bunch of money on your end, don’t even !!!think you will a penny back from American Airlines you get nothing backkkkkkk!!!!!

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