Answer: Basic economy.
At first glance, basic economy seems like a win for consumers — competition must have forced major airlines to offer cheaper flights for stoic travelers willing to give up legroom. Right?
Not quite. Big airlines like United, American and Delta actually created basic economy to scare frequent fliers into shelling out inflated business fares.
False benefits: the oldest trick in the SkyMall catalog
Wolfish airlines focus on squeezing money out of the fliers with the deepest pockets (15% of customers cough up 45% of revenue).
To keep high-fliers spending, airlines attack from both directions — incentivizing them with first-class perks and frequent flier programs, while disincentivizing them with nightmarish budget travel options.
In the ’90’s, airlines used “Saturday-night stay” requirements to segment leisure travelers — happy to spend Saturday away — from weekend-warrior business-people willing to pay 4-5x more to get home.
Necessity is the mother of ruthlessness
Saturday-night stays disappeared as fliers got wise in the early 2000s — but as margins dropped post-2008, airlines found other creative ways to stay aloft on their wingtip-thin margins.
What started as mere advance booking requirements — which made standard fares impractical — soon evolved into the franken-fare we know as basic economy — which proved to be wildly successful.
With hidden fees (like baggage) included, basic economy often costs more than normal fare for budget travelers — and a full 50% of fliers upgrade anyway when confronted with the miserable, sardine-can reality of the basic life.
So yes, basic economy does exist only to make your life miserable.