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In a Price War in Minneapolis, Delta Uses Basic Economy as a Weapon

For years, airlines have charged an extra $70 or $80 roundtrip to escape stingy basic economy fares in the U.S. But recently, Delta began charging double, triple, or more that amount to bump up to a better main cabin fare … on flights from one airport, and one airport only: Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP).

On flights to destinations like Orlando (MCO), Asheville (AVL), Las Vegas (LAS), San Diego (SAN), and a dozens more from Minneapolis on Delta, the cost to move from a basic economy ticket to a standard economy fare – the tickets that still earn miles and status, let you pick a seat and can be changed or canceled for free – is regularly close to $200 or even $300 more roundtrip. It's a shocking jump from the usual $70 or so upcharge that has been a standard across the airline industry for years. And it's only happening in Minneapolis.
 

minneapolis to las vegas upcharge 

Why? Two words: Sun Country.

As the small, ultra-low-cost carrier keeps growing and challenging Delta's dominance at its second-biggest hub, Delta is turning to basic economy as a weapon. They're using basic economy fares to match or even undercut Sun Country's prices, hoping to poach their cost-conscious customers. But if you want to be able to pick a seat, cancel your ticket for an eCredit, and even get into Delta Sky Clubs, you'll have to pay up – and pay a lot more.

Average airfare nationwide has fallen steadily over the last year and change, yet a growing chorus of Minnesotans is experiencing the opposite – feeling priced out by Delta's high fares. And this strategy with basic economy is part of the reason why.

 

What's Delta Up to in Minneapolis?

Minnesota travelers won't see these $200 or $300 upsell rates on every domestic route, but the pattern is unmistakeable.

It's most prevalent on the leisure-heavy routes to Florida, East Coast vacation spots like Asheville (AVL) and Myrtle Beach (MYR), Texas, and California – and only on routes where Sun Country flies, too.

Our team of flight deal analysts has consistently seen that $150, $200, or even $300 price gulf on nearly three dozen Delta routes from Minneapolis – always on routes that it shares with Sun Country.
 

delta upsell map 

Whether this is a long-term pricing strategy from Delta or merely a shot across Sun Country’s bow is anyone’s guess. Airlines simply don't talk about their pricing, period.

In a way, this is exactly what basic economy fares were designed to do.

As ultra-low-cost carriers like Spirit and Frontier unbundled fares – charging dirt-cheap fares but higher fees for everything from bags, to seats – the major U.S. airlines introduced basic economy as a way to compete on price. It's a budget fare on a full-service plane.

But the dirty secret of the airline industry is that carriers like Delta and American don't actually want you to buy these cheaper tickets. They exist to lure you in with a cheaper fare, then hit you with a bunch of restrictions meant to convince upsell you to a better fare. The cheap upfront price is the carrot … and the restrictions are the stick.
 

Minneapolis to tampa 

So while Delta will sell you a $178 roundtrip fare from Minneapolis to Tampa (TPA) and back this spring – less than what Sun Country is charging for the exact same dates – what Delta really wants is for you to pony up for that better, $446 fare.
 

delta minneapolis basic economy warning 

And Delta has gone further in that upsell effort than just about any other airline, making these fares as painful as possible. While you still can bring a carry-on bag with a Delta basic economy ticket, you can't:

  • Get into Delta Sky Club lounges, no matter which pricey credit card or paid membership would otherwise get you access
  • Earn redeemable SkyMiles
  • Work your way toward Delta Medallion Status
  • Upgrade to an exit row, Delta Comfort Plus, or first class seat
  • Change your ticket or cancel for an eCredit when plans change (or prices drop) – at least not without forfeiting a $99 fee
  • Get guaranteed seats next to a child, making these fares a special source of heartburn for traveling families

Delta has practically conditioned its loyal flyers to skip basic economy … and it works. Delta President Glen Hauenstein previously told investors that just 5% of customers were buying basic economy tickets as of late 2022 – down from 15% before the pandemic. Before that, he wondered aloud: “What are people willing to pay” to avoid basic economy?

“Basic economy is not something that we want to grow,” Hauenstein continued. “As we’ve outlined before, it’s a defensive product against (ultra-low-cost carriers).”

And as their battle with Sun Country in Minneapolis heats up, that strategy is reaching new heights.

 

Diving into Delta's Strange, Steep Fares

You'll find these sky-high rates to avoid basic economy on Delta flights from coast to coast – but only from Minneapolis.

Again, you won't see this huge gulf in pricing on every single flight every day. As of publication, we haven't found fares that suggest this pricing strategy has spread to international destinations or other Delta hubs like Detroit (DTW), Atlanta (ATL), Salt Lake City (SLC), and others.

But there's a common thread: Where Delta is competing head to head with Sun Country, it's slashing prices for a basic economy ticket … but leaving the price untouched for the standard main cabin fares (the tickets its loyal customers typically buy) at much higher rates.

For example, let's look at flights from Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP) to Myrtle Beach (MYR) this spring. On many days, you've got a choice between flying either Delta or Sun Country nonstop for around the same price, $200ish roundtrip, maybe even less.
 

minneapolis to myrtle beach fares 

But if Delta convinces you basic economy is too bad, they'll charge you a whopping $180 to move up to a better main cabin fare. That dwarfs the additional $75 or $100 you'd pay to add bags and seat assignments with Sun Country.
 

delta upcharge for basic to main cabin 

Yet Delta is only hiking these upgrade prices on flights from Minneapolis. Delta flyers heading to Myrtle Beach from Boston (BOS), Detroit (DTW), or Atlanta (ATL) still pay just $60 or $70 extra at most to avoid basic economy. To date, we haven't seen these egregious upgrade rates from any other Delta hubs: Only Minneapolis. 
 

Delta Air Lines flight from Boston to Myrtle Beach 

That all but confirms it's a response to Sun Country, Delta's only real competition in Minneapolis. They've gone tit-for-tat for years with new route announcements and fare pricing, but this is something else.

And the jump up to main cabin fares is even worse on many other routes.

Take flights to Fort Myers (RSW), for example, where Delta charges as little as $167 roundtrip this summer – right on par with Sun Country.
 

Google Flights search for flights from Minneapolis to Fort Myers  

But if you decide you need a main cabin fare with seat selection, flexibility, and other perks, it'll cost you: An extra $300 per ticket, more than double the cost of the basic economy fare.  
 

msp rsw basic main 

There's no reprieve if you've got SkyMiles, either. Delta is the only major U.S. airline that sells basic economy award tickets when redeeming SkyMiles, and the gulf is equally enormous on some of these routes.
 

delta skymiles redemption to las vegas 

To upgrade to main cabin from basic economy, you'll need to fork over an additional 30,000 SkyMiles – significantly more than the average 5,000 to 6,000 SkyMiles difference you'll see on most other domestic routes.

Where Delta isn't charging out the wazoo to avoid basic economy, there's also a pattern. Sun Country might also fly from Minneapolis to Nashville (BNA), Denver (DEN), and Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW) … but so do Southwest, United, and American Airlines, respectively. Those bigger carriers keep Delta's pricing in check.

So while bumping up to a main cabin ticket to Asheville (AVL) often costs an additional $200, it's just an additional $70 to nearby Charlotte (CLT), an American Airlines hub.
 

minneapolis to charlotte fare 

From Delta's perspective, this is a win-win. They can slash basic economy rates to compete on price with Sun Country in Minneapolis, then convince some (maybe even most) of them to pay a boatload more for a better, more-inclusive fare. The diehard Delta flyers in Minneapolis who never look at Sun Country fares or consider buying basic economy, meanwhile, keep paying more, padding Delta's revenues.

But for those same loyal Delta flyers, these prices may be starting to feel like an insult.

 

Bottom Line

It's still a David versus Goliath situation, but the airline battle in Minneapolis is heating up – in an unusual way.

Delta is using cheaper basic economy fares as a weapon against Sun Country, slashing prices to win the clicks from cost-conscious Minnesota travelers. But that's leading to some exorbitant upgrade rates of $200 or more to avoid basic economy, giving loyal Delta flyers heartburn.

Will it last? Will this strategy spread to other Delta hubs? Only time will tell.

 

28 Responses

  • I normally do not care at all and am fine with Basic. However, we are traveling with our toddler to Fort Lauderdale and I paid nearly $600 in Skymiles to upgrade us so my toddler was not seated next to a stranger. Delta should guarantee family adjacent seating OR reduce the upcharge. This is ridiculous. Never thought I would be a Sun Country flyer, but it is certainly looking more appealing.

    • I have two kids and never fly with Delta anymore, primarily because the fares are so high even when incorporating fees from Sun Country. Of course you pay for seat assignment but you don’t have to pay more to get access to it, you still get better boarding if you have a car seat, and most other things you lug with you get checked at the gate anyways for free under both airlines. It really is dramatically less expensive.

  • Interesting, Delta tried the same with Morris Air in Salt Lake City back in the 1990s. It didn’t work and ultimately Southwest gained a foothold at that Delta hub.
    Delta’s main service has decreased rapidly with poor service. It’s Skymiles program isn’t that great and we won’t talk about Sky club.If I lived in Minneapolis, I’d certainly look at flying Sun Country, too.

    Yes, I’m a Delta medallion flyer and cutting back on Delta and picking the best fare and schedule.

  • Thanks for shining a light on this. I just paid $109 to “upgrade” to main cabin, which is the highest I’ve encountered. Delta needs to stop gouging MSP and making our miles basically worthless!

  • I prefer Sun Country over Delta EVERY time. More direct flight options. Staff is overall more friendly and accommodating. And flying out of terminal 2 is a breeze compared to the main. Even if costs more, Sun Country is our choice.

  • For the first time in many years we flew basic because it was $1000 cheaper than Main. Wow, was that a tough pill to swallow. It worked out fine, but we immediately felt like pariahs. We have already said “never again”, so it worked:(

    • Someone needs to sell tee-shirts or even just big buttons that Basic Economy flyers can proudly wear: “I’m flying Basic Economy. Ask me how much I saved.” They would suddenly be viewed very positively, except by airlines who hate seeing anyone call their bluff.

  • Aren’t you omitting the fact that the low cost carriers do the same thing? They lure you in with a low fare that hit you with fees and charges for everything. I often find that when it’s all said and done, you wind up paying comparable fares for an inferior experience.

    • That’s true and referenced throughout the story. But while you might, as you said “wind up paying comparable fares for an inferior experience” when booking a low-cost carrier, what Delta’s doing here changes that math.

  • This exact situation happened to me. I’m flying out (literally today) to Las Vegas on a Basic Economy ticket that was $200 less than Main Cabin. What surprised me is that my wife and I are sitting next to each other, and my bag will be checked free because of my silver medallion. We’re still flying Delta with its rock solid reliability. And since I’ve become allergic to the declining Skymiles program, I’m left answering this question: maybe Main Cabin is actually a scam?

  • I flew Sun Country often, but didn’t like when they went to charging for things like seat selection etc. individually. However, I always look at them. I have also flown Southwest to destinations that are direct only. I have had a great experience on both airlines. Knowing how they are using the Basic Fare and up-charging for Main on certain routes, I will absolutely be looking at Sun Country and compare to Main. We need more competition here.

  • My plan (fantasy actually) is to take a really really cheap barebones fare – maybe a $39 fare to Florida – and layer 3 or 4 sets of clothes and stuff my jacket pockets with personal items and (hopefully) enjoy a long weekend in the sun!

  • The article is not written objectively. Instead of decrying the big upcharge to main cabin it could have been written touting the huge savings to switch to Basic. “How fortunate MSP flyers are to have such huge savings between Main and Economy, much bigger savings than other cities!”

    • Is that really the case when a basic Delta fare from Minneapolis to Myrtle Beach costs about the same as a main cabin fare from Detroit? Among countless other similar examples.

      Delta is not doing travelers a favor with basic economy. No airline is. They exist to make more money, period.

  • There’s a great work around to this Delta scam…. if you have status, you’ll still get free checked bags. So big deal if you can’t get a perfect seat on a flight that may be 2 hours or less. With the new MQD’s, earning an extra $200 is nothing by booking main cabin.

    If you have status you’ll likley have a stockpile of free drink coupons so save the $100 for that “free beer” in Comfort and just use that. Or heck, just get your drink on before the flight if you’re so inclined.

    The extra $150 or $200 for the privlidge to fly Delta isn’t worth it compared with the budget airlines. I’d rather save that dough for fun at the arrival destination.

    • Before deregulation we used to call this Predatory Pricing. It was the technique WalMart used to put stores out of business in small communities – then jack up the prices once again once they had a monopoly. Now the airlines do it to eliminate competition and drive prices up at airports.

  • Really this type of behavior is exactly what the DOT should be going after. PLain and simple bait and switch to get you to click through and get you on their website to collect data. It’s getting out of control. Even bumping up to Main you have to pay an arm and a leg for decent seats and you can’t see the prices until well into the booking process. No doubt they are doing dynamic pricing on that. But my point is this is another example of the ‘enshittification’ of the airline industry. Basically offering a low price product, but making sure it is so inferior that their loyal customer is punished for using it. And frankly the basic economy savings isn’t even there anymore as that is now what a main cabin fare used to be.

  • I’m so angry with Delta, that every chance I get, I choose Sun Country over them (even if it means a connecting flight). I’ve been a loyal Delta flyer my entire life, and they have not been loyal to me – with all the new changes – what’s the point?

  • We go to Vegas every year, usually in the summer when it’s nice and hot. In December, fares for main cabin (on Delta) were listed at $299 (last year we paid about $239). Even in Dec. we thought the price will go down, it always does. My nephew and I got my brother and sis-in-law $300 Delta gift cards for each of them, for Christmas. That way, even if the price did NOT go down, their fare would be paid for. The day after we got the cards, the fares for the dates we were planning jumped up to $399. Today, the fares are listed at $447. I checked Sun Country and with all the nickel and diming, their fares are about $285. I suggested to my brother that maybe he should think about selling their gift cards and using that money to get tickets on Sun Country. Delta can KMA and we’ve been loyal Delta flyers since March 2014.

  • MSP is Delta’s cash cow unlike the other hubs. Flights are consistently full and pricing is ridiculous. There is no competition from AA, Jet Blue, and Southwest has scaled back.

  • I’ve had family members travel on Delta basic economy with children. You can call delta and they file a waiver to assign seats with parents. Very easy. It’s due to Biden administration requiring airlines to have families with children sit with an adult. We called and got zero pushback

    • That’s true, but…
      1. It’s still not a guarantee – particularly if your flight is otherwise full.
      2. The fact that it’s not a guarantee leads many parents to purchase a main cabin fare at the outset.

  • The Delta MSP BS is really out of control at this point. I’ve been DL loyal for a long time, but this BS has me now flying other airlines and saving hundreds of dollars when I do. I used Sun Country recently and was pleasantly surprised with both flights.

  • I’ve been loyal to Delta since I started flying, but booked with Sun Country instead of Delta because of this exact thing! I was looking for MSP to MCO and if I wanted to earn SkyMiles it was $430, which is absolutely ridiculous. Truly a disappointing decision.

  • I do wonder if unwittingly TT is abetting this behavior by 1) constantly pushing out basic econonmy fares without the ability for us subscribers to filter them out (I will NEVER fly BE) and 2) by comparing the BE cost to “was” fares in economy to inflate the perceived savings artificially…which would suggest that TT is being utterly hypocritical when juxtaposing the opinions in this article with its own practices.

    TT is an incredible tool and I’m sitting in Rome right now typing this in anticipation of my return leg on BA in biz class thanks to a TT email; however, unless and until TT is more transparent about the “was” fares it quotes, it is merely doing the airlines bidding for them. If the BE fares are compared to prior BE fares, and I’d be shocked if they were, why not point that out the email, e.g., BOS-ATL $343 roundtrip…all fares on DL are BE as shown below…again this is an example…”was” $455 in BE prior.

    Now that would be transparent of TT. The other thing would be to allow, as I’ve asked several times, for users to filter out useless (to me) BE fares. Perhaps, TT shows and promotes the BE fares in order to puff up its savings potential to its subscribers all the while knowing that a large percentage of us hate the fares and won’t even consider them.

    JMTC…YMMV

    • You raise some interesting points, Chip. A few thoughts…

      Maybe I’m downplaying our importance, but I don’t think our stories or service move the needle with airlines and their behavior. Airlines are going to continue doing what they do because it is profitable to them. We report on and explain it – and let people know when and where they can find the deals.

      Speaking of those deals, we would love to be able to filter out basic economy, too. In fact, we’ve asked Google several times whether they might introduce that option. But until that happens, it’s technically burdensome (if not impossible) to do so. And while you will never book a basic fare, others gladly do every single day. We need to be able to show people both.

      And on that, a final note: While the phenomenon described in this story has thrown a bit of a wrench in it, it’s still useful showing you all basic economy rates because they’re tied together with main cabin fare rates. When basic economy rates fall, main cabin prices fall, too. So while the price you see in an email might not be the one that you ultimately end up paying (and again, I have to point out that many still will pay that price), it’s still an alert that the prices you care about have fallen, too.

      And yes, we are comparing basic rates to “normal” rates in basic economy. We’re not inflating the supposed savings by comparing apples to oranges.

  • i am done with Delta. They are NOT loyal to me the customer, why should i be to them. Greedy bastards. i buy the cheapest airfare and use my Amex card for transferable MR points.

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