You're sitting in the cattle class section of the plane, knees folded under your chin, fighting for control of the armrest, struggling to digest whatever food they just gave you and thinking, it can't get any worse than this.

But oh yes. It can.

A new cabin class ranked lower than economy is creeping onto major airlines across the United States and it's probably a matter of time before we see them everywhere.

American Airlines has announced it will soon launch a "basic economy" fare that will cost less than economy and come with even fewer comforts.

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American Airlines is the second US airline (after Delta) to introduce basic economy class, which is designed for passengers who want simple, low-cost travel, the airline said. Photo / 123rf
American Airlines is the second US airline (after Delta) to introduce basic economy class, which is designed for passengers who want simple, low-cost travel, the airline said. Photo / 123rf

The new fares will go on sale on select US domestic routes in February.

One major change will affect what passengers can bring on board - the basic economy ticket will only allow for one personal item that can be slotted under the seat in front. Nothing more.

Passengers also won't be allowed to pick their own seat, but will have the option of paying extra for a seating assignment right before their flight.

Delta Air Lines already offers a basic economy ticket, which is available on about 40 per cent of its US routes. The airline plans to make the fares available on all routes by the end of the year as well as introducing them on international flights.

A third US carrier, United Airlines, said it would start selling its own version of the basic economy fare by the end of March.

The low-down on basic economy, in comparison to the existing economy class. Photo / American Airlines
The low-down on basic economy, in comparison to the existing economy class. Photo / American Airlines

American Airlines hasn't indicated the cost of its new fare class, but it will no doubt make air travel more affordable to many passengers. However, this is what they can expect:

• They can't travel with wheeled carry-on bags, and will only be allowed to board with a single item that can be stowed under the seat

• They'll be the last group of people to board the plane (with a couple of exceptions, such as if they're an existing, high-level loyalty card member)

• They're not allowed upgrades

• They can't pick their own seats - which is a blow for any travelling companions who want to sit together - but they will have the chance to pay for a seating assignment 48 hours before the flight

• They can't get a refund or change their booking.

It sounds pretty grim, but according to the Associated Press, American Airlines president Robert Isom has told staff flight attendants won't be checking if basic-economy ticket holders tried to put their personal item in the overhead bins, so there's that.

And snacks, in-flight service and the actual seats will be the same as the main cabin, the airline said.

But what if you need to check in luggage? Basic economy passengers with baggage will have to pay to check in their bags, and then pay an additional gate handling fee of $25 ($A33) on top of that.

United plans to do the same with its forthcoming basic economy fare, Business Insider reports.

Additional reporting: AP