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Soon, your tickets to Cancun may come with nothing more than a seat and a barf bag.

With a new series of fare structures that Delta and Etihad Airways are pioneering, the stakes of booking an airplane ticket are about to get higher.

The crux of the changes coming forth has to do with the manner in which fare classes are structured. Right now, any time a consumer books an airplane ticket they’re funneled into a “fare class,” a set of constraints that govern the value and flexibility of a ticket. “F” on American Airlines, for example, is “Full fare first class,” which is pretty straightforward. But “O” defined by, is a bit more complex:

12th tier fare. Web specials. Consolidator fare typically issued in Europe. Tickets between North America and Latin America booked in O are not eligible for elite status points

Still, the current fare structures set up by most airlines yields in the same basic service: A flight from Point A to Point B with a few frequent flyer miles to boot.

The plans in motion by Delta and Etihad dramatically expand the range of offerings provided by each respective fare class. At the low end, that means stripped down fares offering basic air travel but reduced perks such as luggage, upgrades, loyalty points or lounge access. And at the high end, that means all of the luxuries and perks of premium modern air travel – for whatever that’s worth. Etihad’s new fare structures were announced earlier this month.

From the airline’s perspective, a wide spectrum fare classes are the best way to compete with low-cost carriers. Offering bargain-basement fares allows them to better compete with ultra-low cost carriers such as Spirit and Ryanair without corrupting the typical mainstream service that most consumers know.

Where the model will find difficulty is in illustrating the benefits of each fare class to the casual consumer. Modern online travel agencies (OTAs) such as Kayak and Expedia simply list airfares as a function of price, skipping over the details of what each and every fare class will offer (much less what the fare class will offer on each partner carrier).

Consumers who shop through travel agents, thus, will have limited visibility into what they’re actually purchasing — and when they get to the airport, their complaints will start compiling.

As airlines and OTAs continue to find the best balance between profitable fare classes and transparent advertising, the onus will be on the consumer to stay educated on the benefits of each ticket and the risks involved with ultra-budget fares. Those not in the know may end up sorely dissapointed with their next flight.

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Tags: airlines, delta air lines, etihad

Photo credit: Economy class on Delta Delta Air Lines

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