DAVID GREENE, HOST:
The big three airlines - American, Delta and United - are taking on discount carriers like Spirit and Frontier by offering no-frills discounted fares called basic economy. Some are calling it misery class because among other things, you will board last, sit in a middle seat near the back of the plane. And wait, it gets worse. As NPR's David Schaper reports, there's evidence this lower class of fare is not actually always priced lower.
DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: At United, the new basic economy fare class will be available on April 18. The airline calls it a lower fare option. Which begs the question, lower than what? I'm checking fares on United's website on the seven initial routes that United is offering basic economy. And it shows that the lowest basic economy fares are the same as the lowest standard economy fares before April 18. For example, from Chicago to Minneapolis before the 18, standard economy - $85 each way. After the 18, basic economy is 85 bucks while standard economy is now $15 more.
So does that mean that you're essentially getting a lower class of service for the same prices now only with more restrictions? It sure appears so. And the same seems to be true on most of American's and Delta's basic economy routes, too. So what gives?
GARY LEFF: To be 100 percent clear, the airlines are not offering lower fares than they were offering before basic economy was introduced.
SCHAPER: Gary Leff writes the "View From The Wing" frequent flyer blog. He says the airlines may have initially offered basic economy to compete head to head with ultra-low-cost carriers such as Spirit and Frontier, but now...
LEFF: They decided that they wanted to give you less, something approximating what those low cost carriers were providing at that price point in hopes that you would pay more to get the kinds of services that you were used to from those airlines.
SCHAPER: So that means services that seem kind of basic like choosing your own seat, making sure your family is seated together and putting a carry-on in the overhead bin, Leff says the big three airlines think travelers will now pay more for that.
LEFF: It's a strategy to raise the revenue that they're earning off of every seat.
SCHAPER: The airlines deny they're being misleading. United's lower fare option appears to mean when compared to other fares on that same flight. American more carefully describes basic economy and its restrictions as a new set of attributes for the airline's lowest fare, while Delta describes it as lower cost with fewer amenities than the main cabin experience.
All three point out that they still offer a free beverage and snack, which most discount airlines do not. And they fly to many more destinations. So basic economy becomes yet another choice in an already murky sea of options when booking air travel.
JEFF KLEE: Yeah. It's getting a lot more confusing because of that.
SCHAPER: Jeff Klee is founder and CEO of the travel search website cheapair.com.
KLEE: It'll be much more of a challenge to shop for air fares. And you'll - it'll be important to make sure you're comparing apples to apples.
SCHAPER: Klee says now that more airlines have multiple price points for each flight, consumers can't just focus on the lowest fare. They need to dig deeper and find out exactly what they're getting, and in many cases not getting, at that price. David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIVID LOW SKY'S "LOW FLYING PLANES")
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