Delta is often the first of the US ‘big three’ to do something new, so we’re not surprised they’re the first to implement basic economy awards. That’s right, as of yesterday, you can now burn your SkyMiles on a basic economy tier ticket, with such amazing benefits as no checked baggage, no cancellations or changes and being the last to board the aircraft.
Travelling basic economy can be beneficial if you’re travelling light and have no expectation of your plans being changed. However, it’s important to be aware that you’re also forfeiting both paid and complimentary upgrades, so there’s no hope of getting bumped up to a better seat on a loosely packed flight.
More worryingly, basic economy has long been used as a tool to bump up the fares of higher tiers. Adding a lower tier into the awards available will inevitably mean that all the other tiers get a boost, forcing travellers to pay more for the same service.
Speaking to Simple Flying about these awards, Delta stated:
“Our customers have told us they want the flexibility to use their SkyMiles on more types of Delta products, and we are always looking at new ways to expand those options, while making that process simple and intuitive for them. As a part of this effort, we are testing the ability for customers to use miles for Basic Economy tickets on select flights.”
Delta have been very clear that this is a test offering on select routes only. Any rollout plans will depend on the performance of these basic economy awards.
What exactly is basic economy?
Basic economy has started to become widely offered by all sorts of legacy airlines, as they aim to compete against disruptive LCCs like Norwegian and WOW. KLM and Air France introduced hand luggage only fares on transatlantic flights in April this year, and British Airways have been running basic fares since 2016.
However, the vanguard of the basic economy has been the US big three. Delta introduced this stripped back fare in 2012, with American and United following close behind. On pretty much every airline, basic economy means you cannot choose a seat, nor can you cancel, amend or upgrade your ticket once booked.
For American Airlines and United, passengers travelling basic economy are not allowed access to the overhead bins. They can only bring one piece of hand luggage into the aircraft. For United, this must be no bigger than 17 x 10 x 9 inches. For American Airlines, its 18 x 14 x 8 inches.
However, once you’re on board, the in flight experience is pretty much identical to everyone else’s. You’ll get the same complimentary soft drinks, inflight entertainment and meals as every other traveller. This means that, if you’re only travelling with a small amount of luggage and aren’t fussy about where you sit, basic economy makes a lot of sense.
Of course, the other option to compete with LCCs is to set up your own low-cost, long haul branch, such as IAG did with LEVEL. Air France-KLM did something similar with Joon, although closure of the service just a year after it’s launch has recently been mooted.
Delta’s basic economy rules
As with any basic economy flight, certain rules will apply to Delta basic economy awards:
- No assigned seating: Seats will be chosen for you at check in, or in some cases at the gate, and no changes are allowed
- Ticket is non refundable and cannot be changed
- No upgrades are allowed, paid or complementary
- Boarding is in Zone 4 (last to board)
- Medallion members also forfeit the right to free changes and upgrades
Where can you book Delta basic economy award flights?
For now, Delta have said the basic economy award flights are being operated as something of a ‘test’. Not all routes, or many at all, will be available for basic economy award bookings at this stage, although more will likely be rolled out later if these initial ones work well.
Delta say that all nonstop flights between Minneapolis (MSP) and Phoenix (PHX) as well as US50/CA flights to and from Charleston (CHS) will be offering basic economy awards.
Good or bad news for redemption?
Basic economy is designed to be perceived as a lower airfare, but what’s really happening here is they are sticking another rung on the bottom of the ladder. This could mean that award redemptions for Delta’s main cabin seats will actually go higher than standard as a result.
Case in point, our friends over at TPG found this fare for basic economy on a PIT to CHS return flight for the 28th December.
Basic economy is showing as 42,000 miles plus taxes. However, when we conducted the same awards search, basic economy was no longer available, probably due to being sold out.
Interestingly, the main cabin award redemption was actually significantly cheaper than it was when the basic award was showing. To the tune of 3,500 miles. In fact, the Comfort+ award ticket was more in line with the main cabin price on TPG’s results.
Whether this will be standard practice or not remains to be seen. Overall, it’s another layer of confusion, another thing to keep in mind for comparison and, ultimately, another way for carriers to squeeze more cash out of their passengers.
For those travelling with high tier Delta SkyMiles status will find the current situation even more irking. People on Platinum and Diamond tiers have the benefit of being able to cancel their award ticket up to 72 hours before departure with the entire value refunded. However, on basic economy flights, there are no refunds, no changes, no partial value credit… nothing. Not even for high tier travellers.
Delta say that the feedback they had from travellers was that they wanted more ways to spend their SkyMiles. They believe they are fulfilling this need by offering a basic economy redemption level. We’re not sure that’s all there is too it, as we fully expect the basic economy to be marketed at a similar price point to the current main cabin.
The moral of the story? It’s a great time to burn your SkyMiles in the main cabin before this initiative is rolled out to more routes.
What about American and United?
The issue of American and United rolling out basic economy awards is not such much a question of if, but when. The two US carriers traditionally follow in the footsteps of Delta pretty soon after, so we won’t be at all surprised if basic economy awards are introduced at some point next year.
Because Delta has no award chart, they are free to make sweeping changes like this in an instant. Other airlines may find it harder to follow suit, but that doesn’t mean they’re not going to do so.