American Airlines restricts basic economy flexibility in move to new normal

Mar 27, 2021

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It’s been about a year since the major U.S. airlines issued sweeping waivers for added flexibility when booking flights.

Now, that added flexibility is being peeled back, as American Airlines will restore some restrictions for select basic economy tickets. These itineraries will return to being non-changeable and non-refundable for new purchases made on or after April 1, 2021.

Note that the new restrictions only apply to domestic basic economy fares, as well as for those international itineraries departing North or South America. American will allow changes on new basic economy tickets originating outside North or South America for tickets bought between April 1, 2021 and April 30, 2021, for all travel dates, except for those from Asia.

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Pre-pandemic, one of the biggest restrictions with these deep-discount tickets was the fact that there were effectively “use it or lose it.” If you needed to change a basic economy ticket, you’d be forced to purchase a brand-new one, instead of applying the existing value to a new itinerary less a change fee.

Then, the coronavirus came stateside, and major network airlines made all tickets fully flexible, including those in basic economy. You couldn’t get a refund for voluntarily canceled flights, but you could still make changes as needed.

Now, with an accelerated vaccine rollout and over a million daily travelers again passing through TSA checkpoints on average, American seemingly thinks it’s time to reign in on the flexibility.

American’s basic economy passengers can now pay for extra-legroom seats (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Even when basic economy becomes non-changeable again, it won’t carry all of the pre-pandemic restrictions. As of Oct. 1, 2020, American allows bargain travelers to purchase,

  • Upgrades
  • Priority boarding
  • Preferred and Main Cabin Extra seating
  • Same-day confirmed flight changes

AAdvantage elites can also enjoy all their perks too, though American removed the ability to earn elite-qualifying miles, segments and dollars on these tickets effective Jan. 1, 2021.

More about AA tickets: Everything you need to know about flying basic economy on American Airlines

For American, basic economy is about to become what airlines had originally intended it to be: non-changeable and non-refundable.

But it’s unclear if the competition will follow AA’s move.

Both Delta and United currently have global waivers for all new tickets purchased through March 31. In previous months, the carriers have extended this flexibility just a day or two before it expired.

Now, however, the calculus for airline revenue managers is different.

In late 2020, all three major U.S. airlines permanently eliminated change fees for most fares. This policy applies to all domestic tickets, and select international ones, too. It doesn’t apply to basic economy, however.

Related: How airline no-change-fee policies stack up against Southwest

Over the past year, the goal was to get you to buy a ticket — by offering changes for all fares. With more travelers now returning to the skies, American seems to be reinstating its segmentation strategy, and getting those who value flexibility to buy up to higher, standard coach fares.

Going forward, you’ll need to think twice before booking American basic economy. What if you get sick? Or there’s another wave of COVID-19 infections?

Either buy up to regular economy, choose a competitor offering more flexibility or cross your fingers that American restores its global waiver.

Featured photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy

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