Airline seat reservation fees are evil, but is this how to fix them?
The government wants airlines to stop charging families advance seating fees. Here's why it's a terrible idea.
Remember when your airline ticket came with the ability to reserve a seat?
Today, airlines earn hundreds of millions of dollars a year from seat "selection" fees. And they charge all passengers, whether they're a honeymooning couple, a family with young children, or a disabled passenger with a caregiver.
Until last week, that is. The Department of Transportation did something remarkable when it issued a notice urging U.S. airlines to ensure that families with young children can sit together without additional charges.
Why remarkable? First, because it took so long. Back in 2016, Congress gave regulators one year to review airline seating policies. Lawmakers said that if it's "appropriate," they should require all carriers to rule that children under 14 would be seated next to a family member 14 or older at no extra cost.
But it's also remarkable in that it doesn't go far enough. Other airline passengers also deserve an exemption from airline seat selection fees.
The best solution — really, the only solution — is to ban these evil airline surcharges permanently. I'll explain why they're so evil in just a minute, and I'll also have a few pro tips for avoiding the fees.
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The Department of Transportation didn't go far enough
Seating families together is surprisingly complicated. I saw an early draft of the proposed legislation, which limited the scope to "families."
But how do you define a family? Is it a traditional nuclear family, with Mom, Dad and the kids? Is it an extended family with Grandma and Grandpa? How about nontraditional families with single parents or a same-sex couple?
When I pushed back to the congressional staffer, we had a conversation that showed how problematic the legislation of seat selection fees could be. Shouldn't the law also include other passengers who require a companion? What about adults with special needs? What about elderly passengers traveling with a family member or helper? Should those people have to pay?
At some point, someone decided it was all getting too complicated and narrowed the scope of the proposed legislation to families with young kids. But that fixed nothing. Instead, it created a bias favoring young passengers, extending them special treatment, and excluding other deserving passengers.
I'm not saying that young kids shouldn't be seated next to their parents. But they aren't the only ones who should be able to sit together at no extra charge.
Meanwhile, airlines are laughing all the way to the bank.
Ancillary airline revenues include these dreaded seat selection fees. This chart shows that on average, every passenger pays close to $30 in additional surcharges and fees per ticket. It does not show that airfares are way up from 2021, probably higher than the 2012 peak.
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Why seat selection fees are wrong
There's a reason airline seat selection fees are the most controversial airline surcharges. Airlines sell you a seat on the plane but then tell you that you don't have an assigned seat. You have to pay an extra $30 or more to get one.
I've seen discount airlines amp up the seat assignment drama.
"Don't get separated from your loved ones," they say on the final booking screen after they already have your money. "For just an extra $30, you can sit together."
Another airline threat: Pay our seat fee, or you'll end up in the dreaded middle seat. You might have no overhead bin space since you'll board last.
The language also falsely suggests that the passenger doesn't have a seat on the plane and must pay extra to fly.
Seat selection fees prey on our worst fears. We're nervous about getting to the airport and having a gate agent say, "I'm sorry, your ticket is no good. You don't have a seat on the plane."
A seat assignment is like the first checked bag. Many passengers still assume it's included in the price of the ticket. So there's also the "gotcha" at the end of your booking that feels like a ripoff.
But in the end, it's common sense that tells you this is wrong.
It's the sense of, "Wait, I already have a seat on this plane, and you want to re-sell it to me?" I can't think of any other business that separates the seat from the seat assignment in this way.
It's nitpicky, money-grubbing airline madness at its worst.
Seat selection fees should be illegal
It's time for a little common sense. When you book an airline ticket, you should get a seat and a seat assignment.
"Some marketing genius who came up with these airline surcharges needs to be banished to a ring of Dante’s Inferno," says reader Reid Kelly. "Surcharges are the antithesis of goodwill. Surcharges do not increase customer satisfaction. Customers hate you for them."
Even if you think it's acceptable to charge a seat assignment fee, you have to agree that the airline industry has misrepresented this additional charge. They've given passengers the wrong impression that they can't fly without a seat assignment. And they've implied that an airline will separate them from their loved ones unless they pay more. That's immoral.
We've already seen the industry reluctantly turn its back on ticket change fees. Before the pandemic, airlines charged hundreds of dollars per ticket plus any fare difference to change an itinerary. Congress was poised to legislate these excessive fees. Then the airline industry dropped most change fees after the government agreed to send it an $81 billion bailout package.
Everyone has their price.
How to avoid seat reservation fees
You don't have to put up with this nonsense. Here are a few ways to sidestep the airline industry's most-hated fee.
Fly an airline that doesn't charge seat assignment fees
In the United States, that would be Southwest Airlines. The airline has an open seating policy. So if you see a seat on the plane, you can take it. It's yours.
Call their bluff
Remember, if you have a ticket, then you have a seat on the plane. Don't allow the airline to pressure you into paying extra for something you already have. That's particularly true if you have a family. Just let them try to separate you from your toddler. The passengers and crew will pay a high price for doing it. Chances are, they'll find two seats together at no extra charge.
Join the program
I hate to say this because I think loyalty programs do more harm than good. But here's a case where they do some good. Some airlines, like Spirit, will waive the seat selection fee for loyalty program members. Now don't get carried away. There are obvious downsides to being a Spirit frequent flier.
This is the only way to fix the problem
So why aren't air travelers equally outraged by seat assignment fees? The kids are confusing the issue. In our Friday Forum, I asked if families with young children should be exempt from seat reservation fees. It was a close vote. (By the way, you can still participate in the poll.)
If you read the comments, you'll find a lot of readers who say exempting families with young kids is unfair. There are a lot of other deserving groups that shouldn't have to pay these indefensible surcharges.
I agree. In fact, I think no one should be paying these fees. Asking you to pay twice for the same seat is absurd.
Airline seat reservation fees are evil, and there's only one way to fix them: You have to get rid of them.
What do you think about seat reservation fees?
Are they the free market at its best? If so, should anyone be exempt? Or are they an airline fee we can do without? The comments are open.
About the art
"For this work, I imagined what a quiet and restful airplane flight would look like," says artist Dustin Elliott. "Then I imagined the opposite." He adds that although babies are needed to continue the species, "for the airplane, I say the fewer babies, the better."
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