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sep 29 2009

The new airline fee I dislike the most

Dear Airline Industry,

I understand that it ain't easy trying to make a profit running an airline. Richard Branson has often said that "the easiest way to become a millionaire is to start out a billionaire and then go into the airline business."

That said, the recent airline "fee-for-all" is getting out of control. This year, you'll squeeze 50 percent more money out of U.S. travelers—with up to $3.8 billion in fees!

Some fees seem more reasonable than others. A fee for checking a bag might be fair. It helps you cover the cost of shipping the goods. It deters passengers from overpacking, too.

Yet one fee announced last week could have unreasonable side-effects.

As we noted on Friday, British Airways will soon let you call to reserve the exact seat you want within economy class for a fee of roughly $33.

That sounds fine at first glance. Who doesn't like choice? Instead of waiting until the last minute, you can now lock in your seat choice up to nearly a year in advance. British Airways argues that this is a helpful new service that gives it an edge over other airlines, which make you wait until 24 hours before departure to assign your seat.

But there's a catch: Passengers who prefer to skip the fee will have to wait until 24 hours in advance of departure before they can select their seats online.

If most of the seats are assigned by then, you may not be able to sit next to your travel companion or children on the flight. (Note an exception: If you're traveling with infants, then B.A. lets you choose your seat without paying the fee.)

So B.A. is taking a benefit that families currently take for granted—that if they check-in online, they can sit side-by-side—and attempting to get people to pay for it.

This is "nickel-and-diming," don't you think? Seat selection isn't a cost of doing business, compared with shipping a checked bag or buying costly jet fuel. Making us pay for the privilege of sitting next to our loved ones is a disservice, not a service.

Up until now, the airline assigned seats about three days before departure until check in. As reader Mark B points out, "British Airways eliminated the ability to reserve seats when booking flights about three years ago, offering seat selection 24 hours in advance of one's flight. Such a restriction makes seat selection difficult at best when overseas and not able to get to a computer." Now, with paid seat-selection, the situation will be even worse, especially on return trips to the U.S. when—as Mark points out—you don't have easy access to a computer to check-in online early.

I hope this fee doesn't catch on. I hope passengers refuse to pay it, and no airlines copy it.

Thanks for reading,

Sean

Traveler

(Speaking for myself, not on behalf of Budget Travel.)

Readers: What do you think?

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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.

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