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JetBlue enters the basic economy battle with a ‘humane’ take on budget fares

The battle for budget travelers just got a little more heated - and now, a low-cost carrier is in the mix.

JetBlue on Tuesday rolled out its own version of "basic economy" airfare, joining most major carriers in the U.S. The airline found itself under pressure from such ultra-low-cost rivals as Spirit, Frontier and Allegiant, which charge low base prices and tack on fees for everything from seat selection to carry-on bags to snacks.

At the same time, larger traditional rivals such as American, Delta and United have introduced their own basic economy fares to better compete with the Spirits of the world. These tend to remove features that most customers are accustomed to, including choosing a seat in advance, making changes for a fee or, in some cases, bringing anything more than a personal item. This group boards last, which means even if passengers are allowed to bring a carry-on, there might be nowhere in the overhead compartment to put the bag.

Enter JetBlue, which is trying to paint itself as the kinder, gentler basic economy option.

"Our new low fare will be anything but basic, designed to help customers save while still offering the full JetBlue experience," president and chief operating officer Joanna Geraghty said in an announcement. "This will attract ultra-low-fare seekers to JetBlue, where we can take better care of them than other airlines do."

Basic Blue, as JetBlue is calling it, will allow passengers to bring a carry-on bag and personal item - though overhead space could be at a premium, since they will board last. If they want to pick a seat in advance, travelers can pay an extra fee; otherwise, they can choose a seat when they check in 24 hours before a flight. Travelers still won't be able to make any changes or get money back if they cancel their flight.

Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst at Atmosphere Research Group, called the option to choose a seat for a fee and the allowance of a carry-on bag "minor differences" that could be better for travelers. And, he said, the flying experience on JetBlue will still have the amenities that fans admire.

"JetBlue does have more generous legroom, and once you're on the plane, it's the same onboard experience," Harteveldt says. "You're getting complimentary WiFi, TV channels, satellite radio, the blue chips and the Dunkin' Donuts coffee and all that."

The airline said in an announcement that it was "inspiring humanity in the ultra-low-cost and basic economy market" with its version of low prices. But JetBlue spokesman Philip Stewart acknowledged in an email that the move was imperative from a business standpoint.

"With competitors now offering basic economy on many routes we fly, customer behavior suggests our success is at risk if we do not disrupt this market by lowering fares without sacrificing the experience," he said.

When JetBlue signaled last year that it would enter the basic economy space, Geraghty said online comparison sites were encouraging more people to make decisions solely based on price, even if it wasn't clear what the low prices would require travelers to give up. Since then, Alaska Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines have both introduced their own lowest-priced options. Southwest, which doesn't offer seat selection and allows passengers to check bags for free, is the only remaining major airline that doesn't have a basic economy option now in the U.S., Harteveldt said.

“I don’t know that JetBlue’s customers are demanding it,” Harteveldt says. “I think that JetBlue feels that they are losing market share and revenue to airlines that have it, and that this is a defensive move by the airline to reclaim customers that it feels should be traveling with JetBlue.”