Preferred seats are just another airline money grab
Even at 5’3″ I admit I like economy-class seats with extra legroom. It’s less about the room for my actual legs, as much as feeling a little less squeezed into the seats.
And anyone who tries to work or use a tray table to eat appreciates having a little extra space, especially if the person in front reclines. So when airlines charge more for those seats, it does seem worth it.
Legacy carriers want extra money from every seat
But increasingly, U.S. legacy carriers, not satisfied with getting fees from their extra legroom seats, now are trying to get travelers to pay for as many seats as possible on board.
United Airlines just joined American Airlines and Delta Air Lines in this by introducing “Preferred Seats.” These seats will be in the rows directly behind “Economy Plus” and while they will have standard legroom, they will incur a surcharge, except for Premier level frequent fliers.
The rationale given to frequent fliers is that by charging average fliers for these seats, the airlines can keep more seats for their best customers, and that presumably these seats, while not as good as “Economy Plus”, will still be better than being stuck in the very back of the plane. Passengers in “Preferred Seats” will also be served earlier than passengers in the back of the plane, and presumably, have more chance of food choices not being sold out.
The definition of “Preferred Seat” is flexible
All well and good, if you’re an elite level flier. But with this description of “a few rows” behind the extra legroom seating, United, along with American and Delta, basically can designate as many rows as they want to be preferred. In the past, particularly on popular routes with American and Delta, I’ve booked clients months in advance, only to see most of the plane designated as preferred seats, and thus unavailable without a surcharge.
In fact, on a Delta flight I booked in October 2018 for August 2019 from Paris to Atlanta, the coach cabin (not Delta Comfort/mid class but the regular coach cabin) goes from row 30 to 57. And most seats, including ALL window and aisle seats until row 47, are designated “preferred” with an extra charge.
Compounding the customer annoyance factor, these increasing “preferred seat surcharges” come at a time when airlines have added “basic economy”, so travelers have already made a choice to pay more for seat assignments when they discover very little is available without a second surcharge.
And families or friends traveling together increasingly will find they can’t find any two seats together without paying more.
So far, United is starting out smaller. And they are only charging about $9 for many “preferred seats.” But does anyone want to guess in what direction both the cost and number of chargeable seats will go?
Now, a side note — to be honest, as a travel agent there’s a potential silver lining in terms of business, as some agents, our company included, have preferred relationships with airlines that can sometimes help avoid seat fees. But that’s beside the point.
And, of course, airlines can do whatever they want these days in an unregulated market. And some carriers, especially European airlines, are now charging economy class passengers for all advance seat assignments. So maybe that’s the wave of the future.
Could the airlines stop pretending these preferred seats are an enhancement for anyone except their stockholders?
Janice Hough is a California-based travel agent a travel blogger and part-time comedy writer. A frequent flier herself, she’s been doing battle with airlines, hotels and other travel companies for over three decades. Besides writing for Consumer Traveler, Janice has a humor blog at Leftcoastsportsbabe.com (Warning, the political and sports humor therein does not represent the views of anyone but herself.)