What’s Included In Economy Flight Searches?

** Update 2/23/17: Google Flights has now started to display basic economy flights. Click here for the details **

Over the last decade we’ve seen dramatic changes in how we purchase economy airfare. Previously we knew that a base fare included a checked bag, a carry on, and some level of seat selection. For the most part these inclusions have all disappeared from basic economy fares. As a result, each legacy carrier has their own version of what they offer as their base rate. That’s left many wondering, what’s included in economy flight searches?

Economy Fares, A Brief History

Let’s go back to 2008. The airline industry was starting to taste profitability for the first time since 9/11. Emboldened by their recent success, CEO’s were eager to try new methods of revenue generation. First, most airlines decided to start charging for checked bags. American Airlines started the trend in 2008, and the other legacy airlines quickly played catch up. Before we knew it, Southwest was the only domestic airline allowing free checked bags with a standard economy ticket.

Flash forward to 2016. This is when things got ugly. Facing increasingly stiff competition from bare bones carries like Spirit and Allegiant, the legacy carriers decided they needed emulate the a la cart ticket model. Sure Delta had tinkered with this model for a few years in certain markets. But in late 2016 the announcements came from American, Delta, and United that the bare bones pricing model was here to stay. The problem is, the airlines have decided that for now, they’ll only be marketing these bare bones fares on certain routes.

Consequently, travel search engines such as my favorite, Google Flights, still haven’t figured out how to differentiate a basic economy fare from a traditional economy fare.

Current Search Engine Results

I’ll be visiting New Orleans next month, so I decided to use that as an example of how search results are currently displayed in Google Flights. Here’s a sample showing the three legacy carriers:

Google Flights Search Results

As you can see, Google simply identifies these as economy flights. There’s no understanding as to whether this includes a seat selection or carry on bags. In addition to the itinerary, what’s included in the fare could have a huge impact on whether I would buy or not. Due to the lack of detail, we’ll have to click through to each airline to figure it out. Let’s have a look what we found:


Once I finalized a Delta itinerary that worked with my schedule, the final pricing came out to $580 and took me to this landing page:

Delta landing page


I was pleased to find out that my fare included a carry on bag and seat selection. This was more or less the traditional method of booking a flight.


After finding my preferred United itinerary on Google Flights, I was taken to this landing page:

United landing page

Like Delta, this landing page shows a traditional economy seat with a carry on and seat selection. Now back to Google Flights.


Clicking through to American’s website was by far the worst. This is the landing page I got:American landing page

This is really a shame. American wants you to enter all of you passenger data before you can see what type of fare you’re purchasing. Get ready to give up your name, birthday, email address, phone number, and gender before you can tell if seats or carry on bags are included. For what it’s worth, this particular fare did include a (sad) seat selection and carry on bag. American’s basic economy fares aren’t launching for a few more days.

I was fortunate that my search yielded traditional economy seats for each segment. The concern is what the search engines will display once basic economy becomes the norm later this year.

Bottom Line

In conclusion, I don’t have a problem with basic economy pricing. That product is useful to people that travel light and don’t mind taking a middle seat assignment at the gate. Travel sites do a better job of identifying what’s included in economy flight searches. Searches should be broken down as follows:

  1. Basic Economy
  2. Economy
  3. Premium Economy
  4. Business
  5. First

In the spirit of looking out for the customer, I’d encourage all travel engines to default to economy. If a passenger truly wants a basic economy experience, let them toggle over to those results. I think that’s fair because each carrier is going to have unique pricing for what they offer as an add on to basic economy fares. If all fares defaulted to traditional economy, each airline would be on a level playing field. Therefore Spirit and Allegiant wouldn’t be included in standard search results unless they created a traditional economy option.

What do you think? Should search engines take a closer look at these new fares? How would you like to see the results shown?


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