All the ways to avoid a middle seat this summer

If you want to avoid the dreaded middle seat on a plane this summer, get ready to pay. It could cost more than ever.

Airlines are developing new, clever ways of extracting more money from passengers in exchange for a release from the legendary in-flight squeeze. They have included paying higher fares, seat reservation fees and loyalty programs that all but promise you’ll avoid the worst seat on the plane. But there are also strategies — some tried-and-true, some new — that may allow you to escape the B-row. And help may be on the way from, of all places, Washington.

As the summer travel season heats up, why is the middle seat becoming a punchline for passengers? Just a few years ago, avoiding a middle seat was simple. If you booked your economy class seat far enough in advance, you could select an aisle or window — whichever you preferred — at no additional charge.

But airlines have realized that there’s money to be made from their customers’ desire to escape these uncomfortable seats. Low-fare airlines like Spirit Airlines and Frontier Airlines pioneered seat reservation fees, which challenged customers to the pay-to-avoid-the-middle seat game by withholding confirmed seat assignments, which were previously available. If you wanted a reservation, you had to pay extra. In 2012, Delta Air Lines joined these discount airlines when it began testing a new fare that didn’t include the ability to select a seat. Last year, Delta expanded these fares, and its competitors announced they would soon follow suit.

How much money do airlines make from seat reservation fees? They aren’t telling. North American airlines earned $11 billion in so-called “ancillary” fees in 2015, a 24 percent increase from the year before. Seat reservation fees are a significant part of that figure, and observers believe the share is growing as seat sizes shrink. But exact numbers are difficult to come by.

How to avoid the middle seat

Let’s dispense with the obvious ways to avoid a middle seat, like buying a first-class seat or flying on a smaller aircraft, which has no middle seats. Those aren’t practical solutions for most passengers, since a first-class seat is costly and the smaller aircraft, which are even more cramped than the larger jets, will leave you begging for a middle seat.

Pay for a window or aisle. Of course, airlines want you to shell out more money for a seat assignment. On Lufthansa, for example, you’ll shell out anywhere between $11 and $65 for a seat assignment, depending on where you’re traveling. That’s the airline industry’s preferred solution, but if you don’t have the extra money, it may not be yours.

Join a frequent flier program. Card-carrying elites can avoid the middle seat. American Airlines elite-level frequent fliers, for instance, have early access to non-middle seats and get discounts on preferred seats. But reaching elite status means spending more money and flying more, which may suit the airline, but may not align with your travel profile.

Buy a more expensive ticket. That’s the strategy behind Delta’s new “basic” fares, which specifically come without the ability to choose a seat and almost inevitably mean you’ll end up with a middle seat. The major airlines are following Delta’s lead. Unfortunately, these tickets are not really discounted — they are essentially the same economy-class tickets they used to offer, with more services stripped away. Want to reserve a window or aisle? Get ready to pay more.

Switch seats after the doors close. Perhaps the most effective strategy that doesn’t involve paying more of giving an airline your mindless loyalty is the following: Book a seat on a flight that’s unlikely to be full (fly mid-week or take the red-eye for best results). After the cabin doors close, find the nearest comfortable seat within your class of service and move. Or you could pay another passenger to switch. Yes, there’s an app for that.

Help may be on the way

Squeezing passengers — both figuratively and literally — in order to make more money has caught the attention of lawmakers. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) and Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) this week introduced an amendment to the Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Bill to establish a minimum seat size and a minimum distance between rows of seats to protect the safety and health of airline passengers.

The Senate passed the FAA Reauthorization Bill earlier this month and it now goes to the House of Representatives for consideration. Both the House and Senate previously rejected similar amendments, but as the summer travel season gets underway, momentum is building to establish these minimums.

Setting a minimum size would ease some of the discomfort air travelers feel when they’re stuck in a middle seat. It would also undermine one of the airline industry’s favorite tricks for earning money: capitalizing on our collective desire to avoid pain and discomfort.

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