With the rise of low-cost carriers like Allegiant, Frontier and Spirit Airlines in the United States, legacy airlines have been forced to find new ways to compete for budget-minded travelers. American, Delta and United have each launched discounted “Basic Economy” fares that are “bare-bones” tickets without inclusions like advance seat selection, carry-on baggage, upgrades, flight changes and refunds.

I have long wondered how a traveler with a disability might experience travel on a basic economy fare, so I booked several such tickets on American Airlines. In the interest of full disclosure, I am an AA frequent flyer and hold their top-tier Executive Platinum status. Although my complimentary checked baggage perk did apply, American’s elite members are prohibited from selecting seats or upgrading a basic economy ticket (just like everyone else).

Booking Basic Economy on American Airlines

I travel frequently between Orlando and Miami, Florida. The first time I booked basic economy on this route, I figured that a middle seat on a flight of less than an hour wouldn’t really be so bad ⁠— if it came to that. The basic economy fares offer substantial savings, as you can see in the fare options shown below (from Miami to Orlando):

Screenshot of American Airlines basic economy fares from Miami to Orlando, Florida.
Screenshot of American Airlines basic economy fares from Miami to Orlando, Florida.

Main Cabin, or regular economy, was priced at $160. Basic Economy could be had for $55, a savings of more than a hundred dollars! I selected the discounted fare and was presented with the following alert:

Pop-up alert on American Airlines website detailing the Basic Economy fare restrictions.
Pop-up alert on American Airlines website detailing the Basic Economy fare restrictions.

The pop-up alert details the restrictions of basic economy airfare, and lists the perks you will miss out on by selecting the cheaper ticket. The following conditions apply to American’s basic economy tickets:

  • Carry-on baggage is limited to one personal item (such as a backpack or purse) that will fit under the seat in front of you.
  • Seats will be assigned at check-in (which opens 24 hours prior to departure).
  • Upgrading a ticket, or buying-up to regular economy after ticketing is not possible.
  • You’ll not be permitted to change your ticket or flight, and they are completely non-refundable.
  • Basic Economy passengers board last in group 9, but travelers with disabilities are still entitled to preboard the aircraft.

Passengers must accept the restrictions listed on this page before they will be allowed to purchase the ticket. This prompt protects the carrier from erroneous claims that ticket conditions were not disclosed at the time of booking.

Requesting Wheelchair Assistance

A basic economy airfare may come without the standard economy class perks, but travelers with disabilities are still guaranteed the same rights equal access as on any other ticket. This means that free access to wheelchair and boarding assistance, carriage of mobility equipment, preboarding and other services will be provided and addressed in the same way as usual.

On American Airlines, disability assistance can be requested during booking, or by calling the carrier’s special assistance line. To contact American or another airline, see my article detailing who to contact for wheelchair assistance at major airlines.

Seating Assignment

Basic Economy airfare does not include advance seat selection, and those assigned to travelers at check-in are typically middle seats in the back of the airplane. If you have a disability and are traveling with a wheelchair, it is important to call AA’s special assistance line before checking-in for your flight.

If you explain to the special assistance team the nature of your disability, chances are they will assign you to a preferred seat without charge. When I called, I explained that, because I use the aisle chair to board, putting me in a middle seat would cause problems for everyone, and would also be a safety concern. Without any hassle, I was assigned to a window seat like I requested.

If you are not able to confirm the seat you want in advance, I strongly recommend arriving early to the airport (and specifically to the departure gate), to request the seat that will work best for you. In most cases, gate agents will do everything in their power to accommodate your needs.

Per the Air Carrier Access Act, airlines must also seat a person with a disability together with their companion if requested.

Baggage Allowance & Fees

If you book a basic economy fare and do not pay attention to the restrictions on baggage, it could cost you dearly. Only one piece of baggage, a carry-on that will fit beneath the seat, is included with a basic economy fare.

Checked baggage weighing 50 pounds or less can be purchased for $25. This is the same price of checked luggage for passengers in standard economy.

If you bring a bag to the gate that will not fit under the seat, you will be required to check it. The standard fee of $25 will apply, plus a penalty of an additional $25. Do not attempt to skirt the rules – they will catch you. And paying $50 rather than $25 to check a bag is senseless.

Do not bring more than one personal item to the gate if traveling on a basic economy fare. I once saw a woman charged $50 to check her backpack at the gate because she was already carrying a purse. One personal item is all that a basic economy fare permits!

For travelers with disabilities, bags containing nothing but medical equipment or medications will not count against your personal item allowance. Wheelchairs and other mobility devices (like shower chairs, canes and walkers) can also be checked for free, either at the gate or at check-in.


Basic economy passengers are the final group to board. Thankfully, passengers with disabilities maintain their federally-mandated right to preboard the aircraft before all other passengers. Although U.S. airlines frequently deny preboarding regardless of the class of service the disabled passenger is traveling in, I was able to preboard the aircraft on both of my trips in American Airlines basic economy. It was a miracle!

Wheelchair user boards airplane with aisle chair
Preboarding the airplane using the aisle chair.

For more information on your preboarding rights, read my article on what airlines won’t tell you about preboarding for disabled passengers.

Final Thoughts

Basic economy is here to stay, and in many cases the savings are significant. While I saved about $100 each on a pair of one-way tickets, much bigger discounts are possible. Take this last-minute fare from Orlando the Philadelphia for later today:

Huge savings on a Basic Economy fare from Orlando to Philadelphia.
Huge savings on a Basic Economy fare from Orlando to Philadelphia.

Standard economy costs $415 on this last-minute one-way trip, whereas basic economy is only $65. With a savings of $350, basic economy is a no-brainer.

With the knowledge of what you will face and a bag small enough to fit under your seat, basic economy will allow you to achieve more travel for less money. And, with so many added costs associated with traveling with a disability, it’s nice to have the option to save on airfare.

Have you flown, or would you consider flying Basic Economy?
Let me know about your experiences or concerns in the comments below!


Feature image courtesy of airlinegeeks.com.

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