Airlines are increasingly charging fees for simple seat placement:

He talked about another annoyance that travelers who buy basic coach fares encounter routinely when booking a flight these days: the unavailability of seat assignments at the basic fare. Instead, airline booking sites typically offer customers an upsell to seats that are available — for a fee.

“What I see when I book is a map showing no free seats available, or just a few middle seats way in the back, but lots of upgradable seats that you pay $39 or more for. These — they have plenty of available,” he said. “I think that’s the direction they’re all going in, trying to get everybody to book a flight and then pay extra for everything, which is kind of disappointing. I mean, you look at the price and then what you get is, well, you’ll also need to pay extra for this, for that.”

I am, in many ways, a defender of modern airline practices of upcharging for every little thing. I am okay with cramped seats and charging people more for humane amounts of leg space. I am cool with charging for checked bags. I am even okay with charging for carry-ons.

This one, however, rubs me differently. Given that the premium is often for any seat that isn’t an undesirable middle seat, it’s essentially charging a fee so that families can sit together. We have an eighteen-month old daughter, of course, who tends to be a ticketed passenger. But you don’t have to have a daughter who is a ticketed passenger to see a problem here.

It also raises questions of whether “premium” seats outnumber basic ones, which opens up questions about deceptive advertising. If a flight ticket is $450 and it only applies to a middle seat in the 27th row, then that’s not really a price. Not the price that should be listed. And if you have to click-click-click to find out what the actual price you’re paying is, that opens up transparency issues far more than charging for luggage does. Unlike deceptive advertising, price opacity (tranlucency?) is not something that is or should always be legally prohibited. But it’s something that consumers should push back on. Especially given that such upcharges are less predictable than a blanket “$25 per checked bag” fee when calculating the price.

I would feel better about it if they had a sort of deal where two people could get seats together, including the middle seat, and not be upcharged. Or failing that, if there is a premium for sitting in a non-middle seat that it was listed on the price itself (“$450/$470”) or, as with luggage fees, the pricing were reasonably predictable.

(Link via James Joyner.

Category: Market

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2 Responses to Upcharging Family Unity

  1. fillyjonk says:

    Gah, what a stupid decision on their part. “Oh, you’re traveling as a family of four? How much do you parents want NOT to be separated from your young children for the duration of the flight? How much are you willing to pay…”

    I can also see this meaning that solo passengers get subtly pressured once onboard to move so that a family that wants to sit together, but did not pay for that “privilege,” and be asked to go to row 30, seat D, between the two sumo wrestlers.

    How about they charge a premium for people wanting to use their cell phones in flight and leave the families alone?

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