Seat reservations fees are some of the most despised extra fees charged by airlines.


seat reservationsNow, seat reservations fees are being expanded by the major network carriers — American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, and United Airlines. All will basically charge extra for an aisle or window seat to passengers who are not elite members of their frequent flier programs or willing to fork over the extra seat reservations fee.

Southwest Airlines has long been a punchline for their cattle-car lack of seat assignments. Families with young children are not hassled or separated; they get to board earlier. The “Early Bird” program checks passengers in automatically. And, as seasoned travelers know, for no extra cost, checking in at the computer 24 hours before flight time means a good chance of ending up in the “A” group, where it’s not difficult to find a decent seat or to be able to sit with friends or family.

Southwest Airlines is regularly considered a passenger favorite. However, other airlines that have customer-service ratings that are lower than the IRS or DMV customer service are still working hard to make airline passengers as miserable as possible.

When airlines started with “Economy Plus” seating, at least it was an optional add-on. And, while the “Economy Plus” or “extra legroom” seats are basically the legroom most domestic airline seats USED to have, at least travelers could feel they were getting more for their money.

At the beginning, any of the extra legroom seats would often be available at check-in for free. Then, airlines decided that even with a half-empty plane, no one could move up to one of those seats without paying. This caused more than a few well-publicized issues, as travelers couldn’t understand why a flight attendant wouldn’t let them move. (A Facebook friend complained loudly about such a situation last week, but fortunately didn’t create an incident on board the flight.) Nowadays, without frequent-flier status, the only way to get an extra-legroom seat for free is to be lucky enough to be booked on a flight that has ALL the seats in the back full, and the alternative is bumping passengers.

Click here to subscribeOver the years, though, seat reservations fee creep has worsened. Delta and American have been charging for “preferred seats” for quite awhile. (Translation: Aisle- and window-seats throughout the plane, with standard legroom). And in many cases, especially on popular routes, the preferred seats can be around 80 percent of the plane. I’ve booked clients months in advance, and seen either only the last few rows available, or only middle seats. In addition, the increasingly limited “free” seats can make it very difficult, or impossible, for families to sit together.

Now, United Airlines is starting to charge for their preferred seats. Their initial change will be to designate the rows just behind economy plus as “preferred,” and surcharged to all but elite flyers and members of the airline’s corporate program. The seats won’t have extra room, similar to American and Delta’s model. But all the airlines tout the advantages of these front-of-the-plane seats — faster food-and-beverage service, and a chance to get off the plane faster (which can make a big difference with connections). Plus, since these seats are sold for an extra charge there will be more likelihood of an empty seat next to you.

Again, following American Airline’s lead, United Airlines claims the seats will be available to all passengers at check-in. I’m guessing that most families traveling together won’t want to take that chance. If there’s no pushback, I have no doubt the program will be expanded.

Some carriers, notably Alaska Airlines and British Airlines, waive seat surcharges for preferred travel agents. And, in some, but not all, some agents may be able to help obtain seats with American, Delta and United.  But all three network airlines already have Basic Economy, where there are NO advance seat assignments, so at some point, it might become a question of what passengers are really paying for with the regular economy fares or Main Coach. When upgrading from Basic Economy to Main Coach only provides passengers with the opportunity to pay more for a seat reservation, why bother spending the extra $50-$100 per round-trip?

However, many international airlines have been charging for seats in economy for a while now and travelers haven’t revolted, so I guess that we’re just seeing steps towards charges for all advance seat assignments. Get ready. If you think the skies are cranky now, just wait a while.