Skyrocketing seat selection fees enrage flyers, enrich airlines

Dawn Gilbertson

There is nothing special about aisle seat 18D on Delta Air Lines Flight 2876 from Atlanta to New York.

No extra legroom, free drinks or priority boarding.

But try to reserve it for a January weekend getaway and a price tag pops up: $59.99. One way. On top of the ticket price.

Seat 18D is an ordinary aisle seat on American Airlines, too, but it'll cost you $39 one way to reserve it on a flight between Dallas and Boston in mid-February. Prefer 12D a few rows up? That'll be $43. 12E,  a lowly middle seat, is going for $36. 

Seat selection fees, once the province of no frills discount airlines like Spirit and Allegiant, have become big business for major airlines – and a source of frustration and confusion for travelers.

They are prevalent and pricey at American and Delta, and United starting selling them on Dec. 14, a move the company announced in August. United appears to be starting slow, with limited seats per flight and an initial fee of $9 each way, according to a spot check of routes by USA TODAY.

The seat assignments for sale are "preferred'' seats, so named because they are in areas of the plane airlines say passengers prefer, such as aisle and window seats closer to the front.

An American Airlines seating chart on a flight between Dallas and Boston. Seats highlighted in green cost extra but don't come with extra legroom or other perks.

United President Scott Kirby, a pioneer of seat fees when he was president of US Airways a decade ago, has long said paying different prices for seats on a plane, even if the only perk is getting off sooner than other passengers, is no different than paying higher prices for seats closer to the front at a concert or sporting event.

Brett Snyder, a former airline employee who writes the Cranky Flier blog and runs a travel service called Cranky Concierge, calls that a "completely ridiculous comparison.''

"It's not like you need a view of the pilot here,'' he said.

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Bob Denny calls preferred seats a ripoff. Denny, who lives in Ohio and travels overseas for his job as an anti-terrorism assistance instructor for the U.S. Department of State, says he paid about $65 for what he thought was a seat upgrade on an Atlanta-Paris flight on Delta partner Air France in September.  Like many business travelers, he paid for the "upgrade'' with his own money to stay compliant with his company's travel policy.

For that price, Denny figured he was in the extra legroom seats in the front of the economy cabin.

He wasn't. He had purchased a "preferred'' aisle seat in what he called the "sardine'' section. He tried to get a refund but has had no luck.

"I think it's a fleecing,'' he said. "There's nothing preferred about it.''

Airlines get plenty of questions and complaints about preferred seats on social media. 

Airlines are making a bundle of money selling seat assignments that used to be free

The government doesn't require airlines to disclose seat fee revenue as it does with bag fees and reservation change fees, and airlines don't publicly break them out. (Except for Southwest, which doesn't assign seats but took in $358 million from its version of a seat fee called EarlyBird check in.)

Veteran travel analyst Henry Harteveldt, co-founder of Atmosphere Research Group in San Francisco, estimates seat selection fees generate "well north of'' half a billion dollars a year for large airlines that charge them.

"It could be substantially higher,'' he said.

Harteveldt says he recently booked a flight on an airline on which he doesn't have elite frequent flyer status (elite members generally can book preferred seats for free.) When he pulled up the seating chart, all that was available to reserve without extra charges were center seats.

"I coughed up about $48 to have a window seat,'' he said.

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Jay Sorensen, president of airline consulting firm IdeaWorks and an expert on airline ancillary revenue, said the the adoption of seat assignment fees in the last two years has been surprisingly rapid.

"The big three – American, Delta, United – have been going down this path of copying the playbook from the low cost carriers,'' he said.

Sorensen says airline seat fees are now a strong second to baggage fees (when you include fees to upgrade to airlines' economy seats with extra legroom and other perks. Delta calls it Comfort Plus, American, Main Cabin Extra and United Economy Plus.

Airlines are up front about preferred seats but passengers are still confused

Harteveldt says he fields questions from friends about the difference between preferred seats and seats with extra legroom.

"You have to plan and book trips with your eyes wide open,'' he said. "There's nothing preferred about it.''

Snyder calls preferred seat fees a form of bait and switch. Airlines like Delta, United and American created no frills Basic Economy fares for budget sensitive travelers in the past few years, with restrictions including no free advance seat assignments. During booking, they try to get travelers to pay more for a regular economy by touting the perks you get over a basic economy ticket.

Except one of the biggest perks, a seat assignment, now carries a caveat: Fees may apply.

United CEO Oscar Munoz defended seat fees on a conference call with reporters in mid-December. He dismissed the suggestion that airlines risk alienating customers with more "nickel and diming'' for things like seats closer to the front of the plane, and noted that "everyone'' is doing it.

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Munoz said preferred seat fees are simply part  of the industry's move toward cabin "segmentation," carving up each plane's real estate to offer different things to different travelers. It's all about customer choice, he said.

"There's certainly not a piss off the customer factor in anything we do,'' Munoz said.

Harteveldt wonders if airlines' tone on seat fees will change during the next economic downturn. 

"The airlines have what one of my grandfathers would call a high-class problem: right now demand is strong, people are traveling,'' he said.

"I think that there is a risk, we may be pushing some of these fees and the monetization almost too far. I think the airlines are going to have have to be careful about the seat assignments.''

Five things to know about those pesky airline seat fees 

1. No, you don't have to buy a seat assignment. Skip over those color coded pricey premium and "preferred'' seats and look for free seats during booking if you're not particular about where you sit. There are usually plenty of free window and aisle seats at the time of booking, often in the back half of the plane, especially if you book tickets in advance. If there aren't any free seats or all that is left are middle seats, you can select a seat for free during online check-in or at the airport. You might snag your coveted aisle or window seat at that time, or could be stuck in the middle.

2. Yes, there's a good chance you won't be seated next to family members, friends or colleagues traveling with you if free seats are scarce and you don't pay up for a seat assignment. Airlines say, however, that talk of families with young children being separated by the seat fee policy are overblown. American says its reservation system automatically sits an adult and child younger than age 14 without seat assignments together 48 hours after ticketing so the child won't be seated alone. Some seats are also blocked until the day of departure out to accommodate scattered families at the gate. 

 3. There's a big difference between a preferred seat in economy and a premium seat in economy. A preferred seat is an ordinary economy seat airlines are charging extra for simply given its location on the plane. It could be a window, aisle or even middle seat closer to the front of the plane for a quicker exit upon landing.  Premium seats, in contrast, generally come with extra legroom, priority boarding, dedicated bin space and free drinks, all at the front of the economy cabin. (Policies vary by carrier.) 

4. You can pay as much or more for a seat assignment than checked bags on some flights. American Airlines is selling preferred seats on a flight between Charlotte, North Carolina, and Aruba over President's Weekend for $36 to $40 per person. The new baggage fee norm on major carriers except Southwest is $30 for the first bag and $40 for the second bag. And the fees are per person each way.

5. Not all airlines charge them. Southwest doesn't have assigned seats so thus no seat fees, though the airline recently raised prices for its EarlyBird Check In option, a version of a seat fee that ranges from $15 to $25 per passenger each way. JetBlue Airways and Alaska Airlines don't charge extra for regular seat assignments in coach.

United Airlines now charges for "preferred'' seats in economy. They are $9 each on a Chicago to Phoenix flight in March.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Skyrocketing seat selection fees enrage flyers, enrich airlines