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As American (AAL) - Get American Airlines Group, Inc. Report and United (UAL) - Get United Airlines Holdings, Inc. Report begin to roll out a basic economy fare category, a veteran airline pricing expert sees two paradoxes.

American, United and Delta (DAL) - Get Delta Air Lines, Inc. Report (which already offers basic economy) devised the fares in response to pricing challenges by ultra-low-cost carriers Spirit (SAVE) - Get Spirit Airlines, Inc. Report and Frontier.

But the big three carriers don't want to sell basic economy fares, said Kevin Healy, a principal at airline consulting firm Campbell Hill Aviation, which does business with most U.S. airlines.

What they want is for passengers to come to their websites and then decide to pay more for more amenities, Healy said. Moreover, as fare costs for the product rise, Spirit and Frontier will be able to charge more for their own seats, he said.

"To improve their own unit revenue, {the big three} have to manage this product in a way that allows them to limit the number of seats they are selling," said Healy, who has been a senior pricing analyst at Piedmont Airlines, director of pricing at US Airways and senior vice president of marketing and planning at AirTran.

"They have to limit sales and sell up," he said. "And the more they do that, the better off the ULCCs are," because upselling means that fare levels move up for everyone.

"The goal is not to be more competitive," Healy said. "It is to be able to manage consumer expectations and to give your yield management guys the ability to sell up, to make sure that you buy what you want to buy," he said.

Delta began selling basic economy fares in 2013, while American and United started last month.

The fare category doesn't provide pre-assigned seats; does not allow changes, refunds or upgrades; and requires that customers board last. It also strictly limits carry-on bags: American and United allow only a small bag that fits under the seat, while Delta allows use of the overhead bins after everyone else has boarded.

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American implemented new boarding class on March 1, and United will begin April 18. At an investor conference last month, United Chief Financial Officer Andrew Levy said the fares mean that "now we can compete on price. We will not be giving away a whole bunch of other stuff for free, effectively."

Healy's point is that while the big three can compete on price, their principal intent is to lure passengers to look at the lowest fares and then to think about maybe improving the experience.

"U.S. consumers incrementalize all the time," he said.

"Whatever demand there is at that {basic economy fare}, some will convert to a higher fare," he said. "It's the classic 'I've got this price if you want it, but here's something else -- I've got the good deal but for $40 or $50 or $60 I can get you other stuff.'"

Spirit President Bob Fornaro, who worked with Healy at both US Airways and AirTran, took a similar position in a recent interview with The Associated Press. Fornaro said the real purpose of basic economy for Delta, American and United is to entice customers with one fare, then to nudge them to buy a higher-priced seat instead, AP reported.

"They're not kind of being honest about what they're trying to do," he said.

Fornaro told Bloomberg that American, Delta and United customers may be surprised at the lack of amenities that come with basic economy. "A lot of their best customers can be the most upset," Fornaro said. "It's not a brand new product, it's a pricing scheme."

Healy said an advantage for American, Delta and United is that basic economy provides them with a specific product to sell, as opposed to their scattered efforts to match the fares of the ultra-low-cost carriers.

"From a yield management perspective, when you have the product, it's much easier to identify and manage it," he said. "It's very clear cut, a specific product category -- you can identify it and minimize how much you're going to sell."

"What the product does is it limits dilution," Healy said. "To the extent they haven't been able to control it, it may have been tremendously dilutive to their revenue."

This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.