Dear Google, Please Save Us From Basic Economy

Filed Under: Travel, Travel Technology

Basic economy fares are upon us.

Delta has been selling these wretched fares for a few years now, but has recently rolled them out to more and more markets. Then United unveiled the details of their punitive offering last fall and American came out with their slightly-better-than-awful version last week.

I’ll be honest, I’m not a fan. Can you tell?

Sure, I get it. The legacy carriers are facing stiff competition from the ultra-low-cost carriers and feel they need to do this to compete. But guess what? They, or at least United and Delta, tried operating a low-cost subsidiary within the framework of a mainline carrier before. I watched that movie — I think it was called Song and Ted’s Miserable Adventure — and we all know how it turned out.

But all that notwithstanding, my real concern with these fares is that there’s no good way to filter them out when doing searches on Google Flights, which is the tool of choice for most of us here at OMAAT when searching for revenue tickets.

The Real Problem With Basic Economy Fares

Having come of age in the era of ITA Matrix, I was a slow adopter of Google Flights. You know, old dogs, new tricks and all that.

But now I love it to the point that I use it several times per day. It has slowly but surely won me over both for its accuracy — I trust that Google Flights is showing me all the fares in a market, and that the fares are generally bookable — and for its blazing. fast. speed.

The trouble is that these basic economy fares show up in Google Flights the same as any other fare. There’s no indication as to which are basic economy fares, and which aren’t. For example, here is a fare from Detroit to Fort Lauderdale, a route where Delta goes head-to-head with Spirit. You tell me, which are basic economy?


It’s easy to know which of the Spirit flights are no-frills, because they’re all no-frills. I can easily filter those out of my results by putting an X next to Spirit on the airline filter.


But now we’re left with five Delta flights. Which are basic economy and which aren’t? Selecting one of the flights doesn’t tell us anything more than we already knew.


We have to actually click through to the Delta website to find out. Indeed, the $117 fare is basic economy.


But what about the others? Using Google Flights, we’d have to click through each one of them.

Of course, Delta would probably prefer we just run the search on their website in the first place. If we do that, we see that the $77 flight is the only one that is basic economy. But that kind of defeats the purpose of using Google Flights.


Please Google, Save Us From Basic Economy

As far as I know, each of the legacy carriers is using a specific fare code for their basic economy offerings. On Delta, basic economy maps to E. It has been speculated that United will be using the N fare class, while American seems to be using O.

That means that Google — and the online travel agencies for that matter — have all the information they need to decode whether a fare is basic economy or not. They just need to expose it to the end-user.

To be fair, ITA Matrix offers this feature, but you basically need to be a LISP programmer in order to use it. And even then, you can only tell it to return fares from a certain class, but you can’t actually exclude them. [Edit:  Actually, Matrix can exclude them. Use a ~ to negate, so  /f ~bc=e in the example below.] Here’s how you would set up the query to only return basic economy fares on Delta.


Matrix confirms that only one of the five Delta flights that day is pricing in basic economy.


Ah, ITA Matrix, you were so awesome.

But alas, Google has been more or less telling us for years that they don’t want to support Matrix anymore. And they’ve gotten us all addicted to Google Flights in the process.

So please Google, add a feature to Google Flights that allows us to filter out basic economy fares. I don’t think it would take one of your developers more than an hour. Heck, I’ll even offer to write the code for you!

Bottom Line

I’m not a fan of the basic economy fares being offered by the legacy carriers. But my biggest concern is that they are almost impossible to identify when searching for fares anywhere other than on the airlines’ own websites. This is a bad thing for consumers.

Google has the necessary data to identify basic economy fares, they just need to expose it to the user. Then at least it will be easier for us to make an informed decision about the product they are about to buy.

Would you like to see Google Flights be able to filter out basic economy fares?

  1. when you write “it’s blazing fast speed”, what that means is “it is blazing fast speed”. That has no meaning. All you need to write is “its blazing fast speed”. The apostrophe makes it mean “it is”.

  2. All aggregator sites should have to show the fare class. The basic economy would have its own fare class, but in general I want to know how many miles I will get before having to click through. I had provided feedback that the bloggers should show leadership and get this resolved. But I think the blogs are only primarily about blogging and referral links.

  3. Delta has been selling them for about a year? More like nearly five years since mid-2012. In late 2014 they were expanded to more markets.

  4. @ Jason Its customary to capitalize the first word in a sentence. Please go back and edit. Its really annoying to see so many many capitalization errors in the comments. Its probably the worst thing ever….which is why its imperative we comment about it.

  5. Josh G — Wow, you’re right. I didn’t realize they had been around so long cause I hadn’t flown Delta for years. I updated the post. Thanks.

  6. Good article. Good request. Would also love to see a filter by plane type. Google seems to have that data point (at least for what plane is scheduled for a particular flight).

  7. You can exclude fares on ITA. In your example above, “DL /f ~bc=e” should exclude DL flights booked in E class. Adding a tilde negates the query.

  8. Google Flights is always going to show the lowest Y fare – correct? So I would think you can more or less figure out the BE fare by comparing to the competitors’ fares in the market. If it’s $30-40 more than the lowest, I’m guessing it’s regular Y. I have to go to the carrier’s site to book anyway, so I can just confirm there.

  9. This is such a nightmare and a consumer trap. Using google flights is good for people who know to do that, but most people aren’t using such sophisticated methods to search for their flights. Hopefully booking sites realize they don’t want to be blamed for consumer confusion and get on this quickly.

  10. Slightly off-topic, but the “basic” argument has always been that they can’t compete with the LCC’s advantage with unbundling. So I get that a matching $70-$80 fare might come with the same benefits as the Spirit fare (i.e. nothing). But now they’re not even matching the fares while still taking away the benefits. A fare that is 60% higher than Spirit’s and you still get nothing? The rationale behind this was always b.s. and just a grab for more ancillary revenue.

  11. Thanks everyone for the refresher on LISP! I was wrong, Matrix can exclude Basic Economy.

    But my point is still the same.

    Google has been telling us for years that they don’t want to support Matrix — and in fairness, I don’t think anyone outside our community actually uses it anymore, if they ever did — so Google really needs to move this functionality to Google Flights.

    Basic Economy fares are targeted at Joe Public, so Joe Public needs an accessible way to know what he or she is buying.

  12. Also, can I address the other annoyance of Google Flights with regards to Delta? Comfort+ is not Premium Economy!

  13. I like Google Flights but it is rarely my first stop. For example, United is currently selling tickets through Christmas Day. Google Flights will only let you search up until December 17. Orbitz also has that issue, only allowing searches through December 19.

  14. “I trust that its showing me all the fares in a market”

    And now we have the opposite error – should be changed to “it’s”

  15. I can’t wait for these fares to roll out
    I will book a refundable full fare
    Pass security
    Them refund.
    Then sit at the gate and laugh at all the conditions and fights that will break out between gate agents and passengers
    I may start my own u tube channel filming it !!!
    The legacy carriers will not have a good year for 2017
    The complaints will be 5x of what spirit has !!!!
    United back to the bottom
    Way to go muñoz !!!!

  16. I agree with Darin.

    I keep seeing this comment on various blogs: “The legacy carriers are facing stiff competition from the ultra-low-cost carriers and feel they need to do this to compete”. What?

    As far as I can tell, they are NOT competing on price, they are only competing on lack of service at a much higher price. The Spirit price is $77, and the Delta ‘no frills’ price is $117. In what way is that “competing”?

    Apparently they see people putting up with BE on the discount airlines, and think they too can get away with depriving their own customers of the expected service from a Legacy carrier. This will work for a few months, until folks fly on a BE fare and find out what that entails. After which I don’t understand why anyone would pay $117 for $77 service.

  17. Travis, how can you do the variable length calendar type search on Google that you can on ITA? The abililty to search for a 4-7 night trip over the course of a given four week period is so valuable to me and is why I still use ITA matrix on a near-daily basis.

    I see you can choose “February” or “1 week” or “2 weeks” on Google flights – but I don’t see the ability to combine that with a variable length stay (i.e. the 4-7 night stay). Is that possible?

  18. Add it as a fare class in the dropdown of Google Flights:
    – Basic Economy
    – Economy
    – Premium Economy
    – Business
    – First Class

    That would also allow Spirit and Frontier (and Ryanair, et al) to default to Basic Economy for their standard fares. No more refining search results to exclude those airlines…and if people really are searching for the ultra-cheap fares they can, and will (should) know to check on ancillary fees as well.

  19. A couple of points: 1) @ Ivan Y is right. I think DOT will be the driver on this by requiring transparency in the results (i.e., including add-on costs in the search results). 2) these basic fares are NOT making the legacies more competitive with the LCCs, they’re pushing people to the LCCs. Whereas before, I wouldn’t look at a Spirit fare, now I need to start considering them.

  20. “I don’t think it would take one of your developers more than an hour. ”

    Being a software engineer (though not at Google, so can’t help you with it), this statement is really confronting – you simply don’t know how much work needs to be done to get a feature online, even though it “seems” to be a small thing for non-tech guys.

    Please respect engineers’ works.

  21. StandWithEngineer — I’m sorry that you feel confronted. I happen to be an engineer myself, so yes I understand.

    Is it an hour? of course not. But I’m also not asking them to go out and acquire a new dataset, build a new relationship with the airlines, or any of that. They have the data, they just need to expose it. This is not a heavy lift and we both know it.

    And now let’s talk about the HOURS or MAN-WEEKS that Google has spent over the years to cripple Matrix and make it less powerful….

  22. @Robert Hanson: “As far as I can tell, they are NOT competing on price, they are only competing on lack of service at a much higher price. The Spirit price is $77, and the Delta ‘no frills’ price is $117. In what way is that “competing”?”

    That’s just one example. On the whole, it could be that BE fares tend to be closer to LCCs’. (Note apostrophe placement, I’m so proud of myself!)

    If the lagacies’ BE fares aren’t lower than the LCCs’, then hopefully nobody will buy them and the reaction in the DL, UA and AA corporate suites will be, “doh, this isn’t working, let’s stop.”

  23. As an extension of the argument by Darin … when is enuff enuff? Planes are full. People are crammed in and antagonized — they’ve reduced the size of the friggin’ BATHrooms to cram in more seats. And now we’re justifying it as a competition for the Spirit crowd? These companies have been hugely profitable in recent years. When is enough … enough???

  24. Google just needs to create a matrix of fare classes to product features so you can filter those features. They can include mileage earning, elite credit, etc…

  25. “I trust that Google Flights is showing me all the fares in a market.”
    This is incorrect as I know they don’t show me all available routing options compared to the airline websites.

    Yes Google please improve your Flights product more. Let us filter out basic economy.

  26. If you ever book FlexPerks award flights, you may know that their site (still powered by Orbitz, I think) clearly labels DL fares as Basic Economy. The challenge is that the site is set to display the lowest fares, so you may not be able to find any Main Cabin fares without calling. Google Flights is essentially the same way (just without the disclaimer), so you may not be able to see any other prices without clicking through to It does feel like a bait & switch, albeit unintentional. I agree that it would seem easy to offer a Main Cabin drop-down just as they already have for other categories. And with three carriers now offering these types of restrictive fares, hopefully Google already has that in the works.

  27. “On Delta, basic economy maps to E. It has been speculated that United will be using the N fare class, while American seems to be using O.”

    Thanks Travis. This is the question that I’ve posted on multiple forums for but have failed to obtain an answer for. Thank you for sharing. Much appreciated.

  28. Is Basic Economy only offered when traveling domestic and intracontinental flights or also offered on transpacific and transatlantic to/from USA ? I’d hate to get stuck with this on an 11+ hour flight !

    The codes to look out for are E, N and O , any others to share with a novice like me?

  29. I would love a feature that compares the added cost of extra legroom seats. Basically it would compare delta C+ (premium economy) to AA, UA and B6 economy + the cost of an E+, MCE or EMS seat in both directions. The only challenge would be to decide how to price it when these seats have variable costs on each flight.

  30. The codes on Matrix have nothing to do with Lisp. They’re plenty ugly and fairly useful and could be implemented in any language. Lisp has very few features that look anything like the perverse complexity of those codes.

    Well, there’s the ‘loop macro, I suppose, but that isn’t a core part of the language at all.

  31. For all that, notice that the Delta sites shows the “basic economy” fares as almost sold out. Evidently people like them!

  32. The ITA interface is slightly updated since this post… the new syntax eliminates the leading slash. So if you were searching for United flights but excluding basic economy, you’d put “f ~bc=n” into the advanced controls section. (United uses “N” class to denote basic economy, this varies by airline)…. you can also combine things, so if you wanted to say “flights with a maximum connect time of four hours AND no basic economy” your advanced control string would be:

    “f ~bc=n; maxconnect 4:00” — no quotation marks and it’s a semicolon between the two search constraints.

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