The growing trend of North American airlines introducing a stripped-down economy fare has spread north of the border with both WestJet and Air Canada in recent days unveiling their own ‘basic economy’ fares but is this a good thing for Canadian travelers?

Delta Airlines was the first among legacy carriers to pioneer no-frills fares which it’d offered on some routes as early as 2014 but expanded in 2017 with American Airlines and United quickly following suit. What you get for the price of a basic economy ticket varies by airline but generally it gets you a seat and a carry-on and the same in-flight service as any economy passenger but little else as no itinerary changes are allowed and if you don’t use the ticket you won’t receive a refund or a credit to use on a future trip. As well the option to upgrade or select seats in advance even for a fee are also not permitted.

Dubbed ‘Economy Minus’ by some aviation commentators, ‘Basic Economy’ fares are in vogue as  a way for legacy airlines to be competitive with ultra low-cost carriers by offering flyers the choice of not paying for features that aren’t important.

This à la carte approach to fares looks like a win for consumers at first glance however in reality takes away perks that had until recently been included and without a noticeable price savings as Basic Economy fares are only the lowest fares an airline offers and are not necessarily a lower fare than the ones they replaced.  The benefit to consumer of having more choice is also only an advantage if they actually understand what they’re purchasing and given the myriad of fare types many don’t invest the time to research the online fine print and focus only on the lowest price.  In some cases the spread between the Basic Economy fares and the least expensive regular economy fares is small enough that paying a little more but getting more flexibility can be well worth it.

photo by author

Here in Canada, WestJet launched it’s Econo (Lowest )fare on select domestic routes to coincide with its 22nd anniversary in late February. The fare comes with some notable exclusions:

Keep in mind these WestJet Econo (Lowest )Fares may wind up competing with WestJet’s own ultra low cost airline called Swoop which takes flight in June 2018.

On WestJet’s website when pricing out an Econo (Lowest )route such as Edmonton – Vancouver the fares are displayed in a vertical grid.

After selecting the Econo (Lowest) fare, a confirmation screen requires users to confirm that they accept the restrictions before proceeding to payment.

There’s a summary of the WestJet fare options here.

Air Canada meantime has come out with its own version of Basic Economy on select domestic routes and like WestJet its no-frills fares earn no frequent flyer miles and checked bags may be added for a fee however unlike WestJet will allow passengers to assign a seat in advance for a fee. A chart showing all five flavors of economy airfares for travel within Canada is here. Note that all Basic fares may only be purchased through Air Canada channels.

One of the Air Canada Basic Economy routes is Edmonton – Vancouver and so this is how the pricing screen looks with the five levels of economy fares, their corresponding features and all-in prices with taxes displayed.

After selecting the Basic fare option a pop-up advisory reminds shoppers the realities of the fare and the difference to opt-up to the more flexible fare type Economy Standard which Air Canada used to call Tango.

The small fare upgrade to gain more flexibility in this case seems well worth it but each consumer will have to weigh the options for themselves.

Time will tell whether these bare-bones economy fares are a hit or a miss with the Canadian traveling public but it appears they are here to stay.