Booking flights for summer travel reveals a new potential problem for fliers: The expansion of preferred seating.
Although it isn’t new that airlines charge extra for an aisle or window seat, we found that at least one carrier—American Airlines—now designates most of its aisle or window seats in the economy section as preferred seating. You can expect to pay an additional $4–$59 (depending on your flight’s distance) to reserve a preferred seat that’s next to the aisle or a window or at the front of the economy cabin.
The problem with the expansion of preferred seating is that families or friends can be forced to pay extra if they want to sit in the same row. And consumer advocates worry that if this practice proves to be profitable for American Airlines, other carriers could follow suit by making it standard practice to charge extra for most aisle seats and window seats.
Experts say US Airways also expanded its preferred seating to include more aisle and window seats, but the airline didn’t respond to Consumers Digest’s requests for comment. Other carriers reserve fewer aisle and window seats for preferred seating. For instance, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines limit preferred seating to the first half of the economy section where there are seats that have extra legroom, experts say.
Airlines reserve some aisle and window sections for preferred seating, because some passengers are willing to pay extra to avoid the dreaded middle seat, says Charlie Leocha of Consumer Travel Alliance, which is a consumer-travel organization. But preferred seating is considered optional, so the fees that are associated with it aren’t included in Department of Transportation’s airfare-pricing regulations that went into effect in January 2012. Kate Hanni of FlyersRights.org, which is a consumer-travel advocacy group, says DOT should require that such fees are posted next to the base airfare.
American Airlines told Consumers Digest that family members who want to sit together and avoid paying extra for preferred seating should book a flight well in advance. But when Consumers Digest searched for American Airlines flights to San Francisco from Chicago, we found that the flights that are scheduled for December 2012 have most aisle seats already reserved for preferred seating. So even if a family of four reserves a flight 6 months in advance, the family will have to sit at the back of the plane if it wants to sit together—and that’s assuming that those seats haven’t been booked.
American Airlines says families who are unable to get economy seats that are next to each other can speak with a boarding agent prior to takeoff, but the carrier can’t guarantee that it will be able to accommodate your request.
In May 2012, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., urged Department of Transportation to prevent families from being separated on a flight by introducing rules that would prohibit airlines from charging families extra on seating.
DOT Secretary Ray LaHood told a Senate committee June 6 that he spoke with airline executives about getting them to change their preferred-seating policies, but he says DOT lacks the authority to force airlines to change those policies.
Leocha says changing the rules could create other complications, such as how the rules would define a family unit and determine the appropriate age at which a child no longer qualifies to have a parent sit in a preferred seat next to the child without the parent being charged extra.
– K. Fanuko