Preferred Seating Fees are a Problem

I’m a big proponent of the a la carte model, because it doesn’t force people to buy a bundle that includes things they don’t want or need.  Because of that, you might think that I’d be a fan of preferred seats, the practice of charging for seat assignments that might be in a better location on the aircraft but otherwise are no different than other standard seats. You would be wrong.  I find preferred seating charges to be an frustratingly-excellent example of just how poorly the legacy airlines have implemented this a la carte strategy.

ULCCs Do It Right

When I look at Spirit or any other ultra low cost carrier (ULCC), I find the model to be pretty clean.  There is a base fare, and then you pay for what you want.  If you want a bag, you pay for it.  If you want a seat assignment in advance, you pay for that too.  Alternatively, Spirit will offer you bundles with some of the more common combos to make things easier, but if you build your own, then it’s very straightforward.  On a random flight from LA to Baltimore in a couple weeks, for example, here’s what I see when it comes to seat assignments:

Of course the Big Front Seat costs a fair bit more because it’s a substantially different product.  Exit rows get a premium as well for the additional legroom.  But all the yellow seats are the same.  I don’t understand why people would pay much more to sit closer to the front, but you have the choice.  And of course, you could opt to pay nothing and get a random seat for free at the time of check-in.  That’s a model that I understand, unlike the half-assed implementation offered by the legacies.

Legacy Airlines and Their Inconsistencies

For the last decade, legacy airlines have tried in fits and starts to back away from the old model where one fare got you everything whether you wanted it or not.  You would think this unbundling would have resulted in the airlines having something that looked similar to what Spirit has on offer, but instead we’re stuck with a system that has been cobbled together haphazardly without any regard for the customer.

Think about what happens if I want to buy a ticket on a legacy airline.  Can I just buy a cheap ticket and then add on a seat?  In most cases, no I can’t.

At the bottom, there is a Basic Economy fare which generally prevents you from getting a seat assignment in advance.  Some airlines have softened that a bit by offering paid options, but the Basic Economy fare is meant to be punitive; it’s supposed to deter you from buying it.  If you are successfully deterred and buy up to the regular coach fare — which is effectively a bundle with the most popular items included — then you get a seat assignment.  That’s one of the key selling points for customers to bother paying more.

Unfortunately, the idea of paying more to get more ends up being a false premise all too often.  If you’re booking even remotely close to departure time, then guess what?  There’s very little chance you’re going to get a seat at all.  Look at this seat map on American’s daily A330-200 from LA to Philly more than a couple weeks before departure.

Even more than two weeks out, all you can do is get a middle seat unless you want to pay more.  Those reddish/orange seats are Main Cabin Extra, and those should cost more since you get more.  But the green seats are all just “preferred” seating.  American never allows you to reserve those for free, even at the very back of the airplane.  (I cut this map off because there was nothing available at all behind row 30.)

This looks like a relatively full flight, but it’s not.  Those seats marked with an “X” appear to be taken, but that’s not true.  American blocks a ton of seats for elite members only, and those show up as an “X” here.

I looked and there are 33 seats here that aren’t available to anyone but elites.  Those are prime seats, pretty much every aisle in the center section back through row 31.  In other words, there are no windows and maybe 10 aisles in the center section at the far back that you can get included in your fare if you’re a regular traveler.

How This Should Work

This makes me mad.  One of the touted benefits of buying a regular economy ticket is that you get seat assignments included.  But you don’t.  I mean, sure, you can get yourself a couple middle seats, but you’re probably better off just saving money and buying Basic Economy.  Let them randomly seat you in whatever is left at the time of check-in.  It couldn’t be much worse.

The airlines backed themselves into this place by failing to think about the longer-term ramifications of every move they make.   Preferred seating may have made more sense in a world without Basic Economy.  Then there was no push to upsell you, so charging more for seats made more sense.  But Basic Economy is the bargain-hunter fare.  If you’re willing to pay more for a fare that includes a seat assignment, then you should be able to actually get that seat assignment.  This is a bait-and-switch.

The end result is that the people who bought the upsell get the shaft frequently.  It’s not a good way to run a business.  So how should this work?  It’s simple.  Let people with Basic Economy tickets pay (a lot) extra for seat assignments, but for those in regular Economy, there should only be a fee for exit rows/extra legroom seats.  Everything else should be included.

I’m sure we won’t see that happen.  In fact, we’re seeing the opposite.  .  United’s President Scott Kirby says that it’s like buying a concert ticket where you pay more to sit closer to the stage.  Unless the pilots are going to open that door and play some guitar, then this is an absurd comparison.  This is a money grab, and it’s one that angers those people who are actually doing what the airline wants and buying up to a higher fare.  This is not how the model should work.

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