“Withholding” seats or just marketing?


There was an interesting piece in USA Today this week about seat assignments and the ever increasing difficulty for many passengers in actually choosing seats, even on carriers which have traditionally had assigned seats for all customers. The basic premise of the piece is this:

Are some carriers intentionally holding back seat assignments, in the hope we’ll all pay for "premium" seats? It’s a fair question, and the evidence is intriguing.

It is an interesting question, to be certain. It is also somewhat surprising that it took this long to be asked, though I suppose there is something of a lag in the effects of any policy shift and the impact being felt by customers in great enough volume to rate actual reporting on the issue. The short of it is that airlines have realized that being able to have a seat assigned in advance is something that they don’t necessarily have to provide (Southwest simply doesn’t, while most other carriers do). And if it isn’t a critical component of the service then there is no real reason to give it away for free. Hello, incremental revenue!

There are two comments in the piece that I found quite surprising. The first is that it advocates simply budgeting to pay the fee rather than offering up alternative solutions. Not my approach, but I suppose for some folks it makes sense enough. More surprising, however, was the quote from Kevin Mitchell, Chairman of the Business Travel Coalition:

With yield management, consumers are aware and they know that airlines are constantly changing prices on seats. But if this is true, it is unethical—they’re grossly misleading us. The thing that I find so offensive is conveying to me that I have no options, but if I wait a week or two then I do have options.

Sorry, but I have a hard time understanding the unethical component here. Annoying? Maybe. But unethical? I think not. All passengers can still get a seat on the plane for free if they’re willing to wait. The difference is whether they are going to get the seat they want or just whatever others haven’t bought. I struggle to find an ethics argument that makes any sense in this one.

Airlines have been moving this direction for a long time. The most recent to jump in on the seat assignment fee scheme was American Airlines, back in August. United Airlines has offered a paid option for extra leg room (EconomyPlus) for years now, while US Airways charges for choosing an aisle or window seat in many cases.

Even without paying for it I got a window seat on US Airways recently, though I suppose I could have been equally unlucky and ended up in a middle; the guy sitting next to me certainly did. I don’t agree that one should necessarily budget to spend the money no matter what, but it is definitely worth at least knowing what the options are when booking a flight.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and .

3 Comments

  1. Not all passengers can wait and be guaranteed a seat if the pane is oversold. Of course this is rare, and there is also the possibility that you lose your seat assignment if the aircraft changes or for numerous other reasons. But there is a good reason to want to pick a seat at the time of booking.

  2. I’d be fine with it as long as they guarantee that all seats booked on the same reservation are together…think of all the casual travelers/families that HAVE to sit with minor children. Seems unethical to charge a group like this a fee just to guarantee seats together, and unless they guarantee that I’d have problem with it. Now those flying together but on different bookings might still have problems with it.

  3. US doesn’t charge for window/aisle seats except for choice seats. Of my 12 flights on them last year, 11 were window seats, none of them cost me anything. At booking, with no status, I was able to choose each of those window seats for no charge. Before each flight I went up to the gate agent and inquired about moving up, in all cases, when seats further up we’re available, I got a window seat further up for free.

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