Air Steerage: Splitting Up Families?

Delta_Cabine

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. The equivalent of a multi-seat discount or something. 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.)

Please do be so kind as to share this post.
Share

26 thoughts on “Air Steerage: Splitting Up Families?

  1. I haven’t noticed this on Virgin yet but I am seemingly not the type to go for cheapest flight. I prefer non-stop to layovers, etc. I generally prefer aisle seats though so I imagine I will pay the premium.

    Virign does have Main Cabin Select though which charges more pet seat and seems to be connected to leg room.

      Quote  Link

    Report

  2. Is there a rule against trading your seat with someone else? I’ve been asked on a flight “Do you mind switching seats with me? I’d like to sit by my spouse.”

    I’m happy to do that if the seat being offered to me by another passenger in exchange is one I this is of equal or greater convenience to me, e.g., I get to swap out of an inconvenient middle seat and get a bulkhead, or the emergency exit row with its precious extra inch and a half of leg room.

    So now, if I do that, am I going to be told “No, go back to your assigned seat, because for them to have swapped seats would have meant $49 to the airline.”? Or worse, “If you want to swap seats, you have to pay us $49 and so does the person you’re switching with.”?

      Quote  Link

    Report

    • I seem to recall that for a period of time after 9/11 the airlines were seriously against seat swapping because it made it difficult for them to identify which passenger(s), if any, had checked in but were not on the plane. Have I said recently how glad I am that being largely retired means I no longer have to deal with the airlines?

        Quote  Link

      Report

    • A very good point.

      My family has often traveled when the reservations could not have us seating together — usually because we were booking late and the option wasn’t available. We’ve always asked about switching seat with people, and we’ve never had anyone have a problem with this.

      There have even been times where I’ve been asked to trade or scoot when flying alone so that a couple or family could be together, and I’ve always been happy to oblige.

        Quote  Link

      Report

    • I’ve never had an airline charge people for trying to switch seats; the flight attendants have sometimes helped people find someone to switch with if they want to sit together (i.e.: they find people who appear to be travelling along and ask them if they’re willing to move).

        Quote  Link

      Report

    • My wife & I flew in February with Bug & had no trouble finding 3 seats together. Granted we booked about 6 weeks ahead of time.

      My last flight, I had paid for an exit row seat (I have a bad knee, the extra leg room is worth it on any flight over 3 hours). When I got to the gate, I got bumped to business class so a family could have my exit seat. Once I was seated in my business class seat, a young mom asked me to switch with her so she could sit next to her son. I went from 20B to 21A, still had the legroom, and a mom was happy.

      Sometimes you just have to wait until you hit the gate, the gate agents are often willing to play passenger shuffle.

        Quote  Link

      Report

  3. If you’re buying multiple tickets at once, I think the seats should be next to each other, and that it’s wrong for airlines to charge extra for people to sit together. Or at least, at minimum, it shouldn’t cost extra for children to sit with an adult in their family. But airlines charging extra for the specific location of seats (window vs. aisle vs. middle) is okay, albeit annoying.

    In general, if you ask a person who’s travelling alone to switch seats with you so your family can be together, they’ll do so; I’ve been asked a few times on trips.

    Also, US airlines are pretty terrible (the thing that annoys me is baggage fees for your first bag – with the new regulations on liquids, it’s next to impossible not to bring a checked bag, so they’re charging you for something that is, practically speaking, an inherent part of the service they’re offering). The Canadian airlines I’ve flown generally let you pick your own seats from the ones that are available, and I can usually get a window seat.

      Quote  Link

    Report

  4. Am I the only one that sees this as a good thing? Middle seats are inferior products to aisle seats (as evidenced by the fact that they are typically the last to go), they should be cheaper than regular seats. It sucks when you get stuck with the middle seat and you paid as much as someone in an aisle, window or exit row seat. The way this is done is kinda skeevy, but it gets to the way aggregators sort by price. Spirit is always the cheapest even though they nickel and dime you to a more expensive fare. The solution to this is to demand that Kayak or Priceline or whoever list all of the add on fees and let consumers choose.

      Quote  Link

    Report

  5. What happens if you don’t actually pick your seat? Sometimes when I’ve bought tickets, I do not choose the “Select Seat” option and just let them assign me. If I buy the tickets together (I don’t always if we’re trying to take advantage of certain deals), we’ve always been assigned together.

      Quote  Link

    Report

  6. I didn’t know there were airlines that both assigned seats and let you upgrade to a different seat. The ones I fly with most (Easyjet, Ryanair etc) if you don’t pay the extra for a seat booking it is a free for all. They know the number of passengers is the same as the number of seats but make no attempt to control which seat you take. Also bookable seats tend to be something like the first five rows not every aisle and window seat.

      Quote  Link

    Report

  7. Will,
    Chalk it up to just another challenge to parents. You did, after all, choose to have a child. :) It seems we’re moving to the model that the flight is free, but everything else; the seat, the checked bag, the carry on, the meal, the drink, the entertainment, is all ala carte.

      Quote  Link

    Report

  8. Will: “This one, however, rubs me differently. ”

    I accept that that’s true for you. However, objectively, it’s no different from every other nickel-and-diming thing that you’re OK with. The only real difference is that you do mind this one.

      Quote  Link

    Report

    • The main differences are:

      (1) It’s suboptimal to incentivize split up families (especially with children involved). At least with luggage fees, you’re incentivizing something good (people packing less luggage, making due with smaller space). And
      (2) When most seats are “premium”, then you have price transparency and deceptive advertising issues.

      Fix these two things, and then they’re like the other nickel-and-diming, as far as I’m concerned. More effective price communication would go a long way here.

      You’re right that these are subjective judgments. though they’re not arbitrary (in my view) or entirely self-interested. (If it were a matter of self-interest, my 6’5″ self would be objecting most to legroom.)

        Quote  Link

      Report

  9. We recently traveled by air (American/USAirways), and our three seats were separated. What seemed strange to me was that the two adults were seated close to each other and the four-year-old was seated several rows away.

    Both coming (non-stop) and going (two flights), I had to talk to a desk attendant to have seats rearranged to put one of us next to our daughter. This only cost us time, not money. In both cases, the desk attendant declined to seat the three of us together, aiming only at seating the young child with one parent. On the return flight, the young woman seated with my daughter and me offered to trade seats with Jason (maybe because Alice brought up being sick on a previous flight).

    All in all, if that’s the policy, it’s hard to argue with it.

    Incidentally, I do not like to be asked to trade seats, and I rarely am. I don’t mind at all if people drop hints and allow me to offer if I am so inclined, which I normally do. I can only think of one time when a couple was seated separately and I could have helped but didn’t. I was exhausted, feeling maybe feverish, and wanted the aisle seat in case I got worse on the long flight. I got no dirty looks.

    It’s because some people have hidden needs–some temporary and some permanent–that I think we should be careful about asking favors for our own convenience.

      Quote  Link

    Report

  10. I think MegaBus has caught flak for a similar approach. They advertise: “Fares as low as $1!” And, technically, they do sell a fare at $1. It is usually the first fare, usually booked months in advance. Prices go up from there. In the beginning, many tickets were available at the lower rates. Now, you never see anything besides a full or almost-full price fare. I’m skeptical that they even offer the $1 fare at any point. They probably do it just often enough that the initial claim isn’t a complete lie, but it is a fairly shady approach.

      Quote  Link

    Report

  11. Every little annoyance that you mention in the OP is another reason I fly Southwest whenever I can. When I think about how much I used to enjoy flying and consider how much I’ve grown to hate it. It’s not just security, it’s every little hateful nickel and dime of hidden inconvenience and cost that the airlines squeeze out of us. And with fewer airlines it’s not going to get better.

    Give me Southwest every time. Too bad they don’t go everywhere.

      Quote  Link

    Report

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *