Let’s ban airline seat selection fees

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By Christopher Elliott

Airline seat selection fees are one of the most hated surcharges in the travel industry — and they should be illegal.

It costs an airline nothing to reserve your seat. Yet passengers shell out anywhere from $25 to more than $100 for a confirmed seat assignment or to sit next to their friends and family. 

If the Fair Fees Act proposed by Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey passes, then seat selection fees would fly away. The law prohibits airlines from imposing fees that are not reasonable and proportional to the costs it incurs.

But airlines really went too far when they began charging families with young children for seat assignments, sometimes even suggesting parents could be separated from their kids if they didn’t pay. The Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Bill, which is expected to be signed into law this month, contains a new rule that would prohibit airlines from charging fees for families to sit together.

But these proposals will not help you if you’re flying now. And even if they did, they would exclude some passengers, including travelers with older kids who might still need to sit near an adult, passengers with special needs, honeymooning couples, BFFs, and … the list goes on. (Related: Stop trying to switch airline seats!)

How do they avoid paying more for adjacent seats? And are there any new ways of avoiding seat selection fees?

What is an airline seat selection fee?

A seat selection fee allows you to reserve a seat in your class of service. Each airline ticket comes with a confirmed seat, but if you want to choose your seat location, most domestic airlines will charge an additional fee. 

These extras are not new. Airlines started to experiment with seat selection fees in 2008, and they caught on a decade later. What is new is that the fees are rising, sometimes increasing the cost of a ticket by hundreds of dollars. Last year, U.S. airlines collected $4.2 billion in seat assignment fees

How do you avoid a seat selection fee?

If you’re traveling with a group, the best way to avoid a seat selection fee is to book your seats at the same time. If the airline is assigning seats for you, it typically seats people under the same record locator number together. With added government pressure on the airlines, it’s unlikely they will intentionally separate a family — and if they accidentally do, they will find a way of undoing it.

Seat selection fees are a mind game. If you’re booking your flights online, you’ll face pop-ups and screens that try to convince you that you need to pay more to upgrade your travel experience. Just say “no.” Within 24 hours of your departure, the airline will assign you a seat. Pro tip: If you want to avoid paying for a seat assignment, arrive at the airport early. That way, you’ll have the pick of the unassigned seats.

New strategies for sitting together on a flight

There are some lesser-known travel hacks that will let you find a seat together.

Find two seats together

ExpertFlyer, a subscription service for frequent fliers, has a service called Seat Alerts with an “Any Two Seats Together” option that monitors airline seat maps and can tell you if two seats together become available.

“If you need more seats, you can also create a seat alert for specific seats around the seats you already have assigned in case one of them opens up,” says Chris Lopinto, founder of ExpertFlyer. Then you can claim both seats, but you may have to pay extra.

Be last to board

Here’s another tip I’ve heard from several travelers, but it only works if the flight isn’t full and you don’t have a lot of carry-on luggage. First, find out if it’s a full flight by looking at the seat map online or asking a gate agent. Then wait until the last person has boarded and look for two empty seats in your class of service.

Ask another passenger to switch

Asking a passenger to swap seats so your traveling companion can sit next to you can be problematic because many passengers have paid extra for their seats. Kate Zuckerman, CEO of Thrive Family Travel, which provides travel coaching services for families, says there’s a right way to trade seats. 

“Try to offer them something of value, such as a coveted aisle placement instead of a mediocre middle seat, or a seat closer to the front of the plane,” she says. (Related: Airlines fall in love with fuel surcharges all over again.)

Other travelers have offered gifts, snacks, or even cash. Zuckerman says she usually finds someone who will volunteer to give up their seat. And she pays it forward. When she travels solo, she’s always the first to trade seats with someone who wants to sit next to a friend or family member.

Should you ask a gate agent for a better seat?

Asking a gate agent for a seat next to your sweetheart may be a waste of time. Karen Villano, a gate agent for a major airline, says airlines always pressure the airport staff to collect money in exchange for a better seat, even if it’s just a window seat or emergency exit row in economy class.

“If I change your seat to a paid seat without collecting money, the company is alerted,” she says. “It goes on my permanent record of not complying with company policy.”

Villano says airlines will waive their collect-money-at-all-costs rule for any family with a young child. But anyone else will have to pay for a better seat. The real opportunities to switch come after you’ve boarded the flight.

Wait, do you really have to sit together?

Airlines have been cashing in on passengers’ desire to sit together for years. But before you try to beg a gate agent for a seat next to your companion or bribe a fellow passenger to swap seats, ask yourself: Do we really need to sit together? 

If the answer is yes, chances are the crew will find a way to make it happen. A single mom with twins. Grandpa, who has dementia, flying with a caretaker. As eager as airlines are to collect more seat fees from you, they will not allow passengers like this to be separated. 

For the rest of us, the answer might be “no.” If you’re on vacation, you’ll spend a lot of time together once you arrive. If you’re traveling with your spouse, you might need the break. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a little alone time to enjoy your flight.

The days of charging seat selection fees are numbered

Airline seat selection fees represent everything that is wrong with the airline industry. Airlines took away your ability to reserve a seat next to a family member or loved one and then started charging you extra for it. It costs airlines nothing to reserve a seat, but now they’re making billions a year from it. (Here are my strategies for having a safe and fee-free flight.)

When passengers try to book seats together this summer, they’ll see seat assignment fees for what they are — pure airline greed. And now, finally, the government is going to put an end to these unconscionable surcharges. 

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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