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Air Canada, WestJet offer cheap basic economy fares for no-frills seekers

The economy section of an Air Canada plane (Air Canada)

Thought economy was the lowest class on a plane? Think again: Air Canada and WestJet are selling "basic economy" fares that cost less and offer even fewer features, such as no options to change your flight.

​"Basic economy fares are getting you a seat, that's it " says Ottawa-based travel blogger Anshul Singh. "There is no extra sort of cushioning."

Variations of basic economy fares are already widespread in the U.S., adopted by some major airlines to compete with encroaching discount carriers.

Now that more discount airlines are flying into Canada, Air Canada and WestJet are joining the trend. For now, both airlines are only offering basic economy on a small number of domestic routes, although WestJet plans to eventually expand the fare — which it calls 'econo lowest' — across its network.

"We will now have something to offer every type of guest," said spokesperson, Lauren Stewart in an email to CBC News.

What you don't get

With both Air Canada and WestJet, the fares come with a number of restrictions.

When flying economy, passengers can change their tickets for a fee, but with basic economy, no refunds or flight changes are allowed.

Passengers also can't request upgrades and won't earn any Aeroplan miles or WestJet dollars.

They still can opt for advance seat selection with Air Canada, but will have to pay extra: $10 to $50 more than the fee charged for economy passengers.

Basic economy WestJet travellers can select their seat at check-in for a $5 to $40 fee — a feature all its other passengers get for free. 

So what are the savings?  CBC News found basic economy fares offered by both airlines on flights from Edmonton to Vancouver and Winnipeg to Ottawa. For both Air Canada and WestJet, a one-way flight was $21 cheaper than regular economy fares.

Flyer beware

Air Canada and WestJet's websites clearly lay out the fare's restrictions — they even ask passengers to click a box accepting them before booking a flight.

Still, travel expert Jodie Simpson worries people may be blinded by the lower price and not fully take in all the rules.

"They're going to catch people unaware, and then we're going to have frustration," said Simpson, owner of Sandcastle Vacations in Airdrie, Alta.

"I don't personally see it being a highly satisfactory experience. People struggle enough with the economy the way it's been scaled back now."

Singh says he would consider flying basic economy, but only for shorter flights — in case he gets stuck in a middle seat. He cautions anyone considering the fare to fully understand the consequences of no flight changes or refunds.

"It's a bit of a gamble," he said. "If you have a family of say three or four people, that's a decent chunk of money to lose out on just because your plans have changed."

In the U.S., Delta, United and American Airlines offer basic economy on many flights. At American and United, the fares include a charge for carry-on luggage that can't fit under the seat.

The fare restrictions have caught some passengers off-guard, sparking a backlash and a recent report by U.S. Senator Bill Nelson criticizing the fares.

"Basic economy fares appear to be contributing to the confusion consumers face when trying to assess the true cost of air travel," he wrote.

Delta, American and United told CBC News they've taken steps to ensure basic economy customers understand what they're buying.

"If people want it, it's there for them. If they don't, we've got other choices," said American Airlines spokesperson Josh Freed.

More basic economy?

Airline analyst Fred Lazar believes WestJet and Air Canada are starting out small with their basic economy offerings because they want to see what the competition holds.

"The airlines are simply positioning themselves," said Lazar, a professor at York University's Schulich School of Business in Toronto. "[They] can increase the number of seats if necessary, to be in position to meet these new competitors."

Those competitors include ultra-low-cost Flair Airlines. It announced last week that it will more than double its flight service in June.

Also in June, WestJet will begin service on Swoop, its own no-frills airline. Discount carriers Jetlines and Norwegian Air also have plans to enter Canadian market.

Ultra-low-cost airlines offer their own version of bare-bones travel which typically includes paying for carry-on luggage.

As more stripped-down fares crowd the airspace, Lazar believes Canadians will grow accustomed to all the things they don't include.

Just like when [airlines] started charging for food, charging for blankets, pillows, there were complaints," he said. "You rarely get them nowadays."

sophia.harris@cbc.ca