An Airline Fee That’s Actually Reasonable

We should expect to pay more for the least undesirable seats.


A recent NYT piece lamenting the fact that airlines are increasingly awarding “status” points on the basis of how much customers spend rather than how many miles they fly complains about another growing practice in the industry:

He talked about another annoyance that travelers who buy basic coach fares encounter routinely when booking a flight these days: the unavailability of seat assignments at the basic fare. Instead, airline booking sites typically offer customers an upsell to seats that are available — for a fee.

“What I see when I book is a map showing no free seats available, or just a few middle seats way in the back, but lots of upgradable seats that you pay $39 or more for. These — they have plenty of available,” he said. “I think that’s the direction they’re all going in, trying to get everybody to book a flight and then pay extra for everything, which is kind of disappointing. I mean, you look at the price and then what you get is, well, you’ll also need to pay extra for this, for that.”

Since I always book the cheapest fare and mix my airlines, I have no elite status. When I try to get an assigned seat on American, Delta or United, I almost always see a coach-cabin map with no seats available at the fare, though lots are available for a fee.

For example, I recently booked on American Airlines a one-way ticket on April 18 from Tucson to New York, connecting through Dallas, at the cheapest fare, $190. But on both connecting flights, the only seats listed as being available cost from $30 to $71 extra. I have had similar experiences with the other major carriers (excepting Southwest, which doesn’t play the pay for seat-assignment game).

One tactic most of us frequent fliers without elite status know is that if you book the cheap fare in advance but wait till a day before departure to choose your seat, chances are that the selection of no-fee seats might suddenly improve. But now, with airplanes flying totally full, that’s taking a chance that you might instead be consigned to a middle seat back by the toilets, if you get a seat at all. It’s not a chance I’m willing to take on a long flight in a air-travel system with little slack.

Most us of love to complain about the increasing hassles and reduced service that come with commercial flight. The ticky-tack fees for things that had previously been included in the ticket price since the dawn of flight are no doubt annoying. I particularly resent being charged for the inconvenience of checking a bag—especially given the security-based restrictions on what one can bring aboard and the paltry space for storing carry-on luggage.

But, surely, given that everyone seems to want to avoid sitting in the middle seats or those near the lavatory, it stands to reason that those seats should be the cheapest? If so, it naturally follows that there will be an upcharge for the more desirable seats.

As a relatively tall person who generally flies coach, I’m in competition with the other coach travelers for the least miserable flying experience. Seats in the bulkhead row, which provide a modicum of additional leg room, are particularly coveted. And seats in the aisle are considerably less confining, especially if you’re the unfortunate bastard booked next to someone who is morbidly obese, profusely sweaty, or reeks of too much cologne or too little hygiene. Or, if it’s your lucky day, all of the above.

$39 to avoid three hours of that? I’m in.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. OzarkHillbilly says:

    $39 to avoid three hours of that? I’m in.

    I don’t fly all that much, but the ability to stretch out my arthritic knees is probably worth twice** that. Especially on a trans-Atlantic or Pacific flight.

    **shhhhhhhh… don’t tell them I said that.

  2. Just Me says:

    I almost never fly-too expensive and our family has too many travelers to make flying more affordable. We choose to drive.

    However when we do fly my very tall husband wants an aisle seat. Seems like the airlines have all but saturated the things they can tack fees on. I figure the free non alcoholic drinks will be the next thing to go.

  3. Dave Schuler says:

    I think you’ve got this backwards, James. People should pay less for the least desireable seats. Convincing people who’ve got the least desireable seats that they should pay the same fare as those in the most desireable seats is a triumph of marketing.

  4. James Joyner says:

    @Dave Schuler: Right. But they’ve effectively fixed that now. The crappy seats are the cheapest. If you’re in them you at least know people in better seats had to pay for the privilege.

  5. Trumwill says:

    My main problem with it is price transparency. Charging extra for frills is okay. Is an aisle seat or a window seat a frill? Sometimes it isn’t. When price shopping, I shouldn’t have to click-click-click-click to find out how much extra it’s going to cost me to sit with my daughter. If they want to upcharge me for the privilege, they need to disclose the price of window/middle/aisle at the outset.

    At some point, if less than a third of seats are available at the posted price (and none of those seats together), it becomes an issue of false advertising.

  6. DrDaveT says:

    As much as I regret how much less pleasant flying is, compared to what it used to be, I don’t see an issue here. A service provider is proposing a tiered fee structure based on
    1) the quality of the service being provided
    2) your past history as a source of revenue to them

    This is surprising and controversial? As Dave Schuler pointed out, people were willing to pay those fares for the crappy seats already. That means the good seats were clearly underpriced for the market.

  7. michael reynolds says:

    Don’t hate me, but I’ve just reached the point where I’m done with coach. It’s business/first, preferably on Virgin America, or stay home.

  8. Scott says:

    My problem with this is traveling with kids. You want (and need to be if they are little) to be seated together and you are forced to pay more to get that privilege.

  9. Neil Hudelson says:

    @James Joyner:

    But they aren’t. At least compared to othe “regular” seats.

    Most exit aisle seats and seats near the front cost more. I’m on board with that. The rest of coach seats cost the same.

    So my middle seat next to the lavatory costs the same as an aisle seat 4 rows up, even though one is clearly a worst seat.

    You get the option of paying more for a nicer than average seat, but the clearly below average seats cost the same.

  10. Trumwill says:

    @Neil Hudelson: That can sort of tie into my objection. A “ticket” costs $450, but it only applies to a middle seat in the 27th row. All others are a premium. But the price still says $450 (or $450 and up) until you’re choosing your seat.

  11. DrDaveT says:

    @michael reynolds:

    preferably on Virgin America

    Hear, hear. In a previous life when I was traveling to London on business a couple of times a year, I quickly learned that Virgin’s “Premier Economy” made United business class look like steerage, and was half the price of British Airways.

  12. Eric Florack says:

    I don’t fly much, anymore.

    It’s usually faster to drive, to say nothing of more comfortable, than to, in the words of the poet, become part of the Bataan Death march with American Tourister luggage, with the now added attraction of playing doctor with the TSA.

  13. bill says:

    i don’t fly much but maybe they could give you info on who’s sitting where- like is it some wicked fat guy or annoying mom with a screaming kid?! i’d pay to sit elsewhere, and i’d rather be at the back anyway- away from the maniacal business people who will trample old ladies and children to save 3 seconds of waiting….while smashing others in the head with their luggage that they just dragged out of the overhead bin.

  14. Liberal Capitalist says:

    Here’s a tip:

    This will let you know if on your flight, on your plane, if the extra $$$ is worth it.

  15. michael reynolds says:

    @Liberal Capitalist:
    I never book on an unfamiliar carrier without checking Seat Guru.

  16. Grewgills says:

    I flew to the Big Island week before last and the plane Hawaiian was renting had expanded the galley at the cost of a couple inches between each coach seat. To make a bad situation worse, they did away with the slim line seats to put in thicker padding. Either my knees had to push into the back of the seat in front of me or my foot had to be out in the aisle. I’m expecting a surcharge on all people over 6′ any day now.

  17. RaflW says:

    Well, people who complain on blogs clearly dislike fees for seats and such. But the people who buy airline tickets say something different: Spirit Airlines, which proudly tells you that they charge for each and every thing, was written up in the WSJ recently as the most profitable US airline in terms of profit margin.

    The traveling public (but probably not many business travelers) seems to affirm that price trumps all. And if that’s the case, then in aggregate, service will continue to be crappy, fees will rise for anything considered ancillary, and lots of folks will complain – while buying the thing they say they don’t like.

  18. michael reynolds says:


    Of course as usual with business they aren’t able to count what’s not there – the millions of customers who actively avoid all flying rather than tolerate being treated like penned cattle. Not to mention the damage they do to tourism generally by turning people off on travel.

  19. James Joyner says:

    @RaflW: I think @michael reynolds has it quite right. It’s true that the way we book flights now has led to a sheer competition on price, since there’s no easy way to cross-compare anything else. But airlines like JetBlue and Southwest have built a loyal following by managing to combine low or at least competitive pricing with better customer service.

  20. MarkedMan says:

    I fly a lot of long distance flights and nothing beats a full lie-flat business seat for those. When I fly short flights (and I’m now to the point I consider anything under 7-8 hours ‘short’) I am either flying in American or Chinese carriers and airports, horrible for very different reasons. The Chinese experience is significantly worse, especially for delays. Whenever I can I take the train – the Acela corridor in the US or the bullet train in China. That bullet train experience is something. 10 minute walk from my house to the metro, 20 minute ride straight to the soaring, gleaming absolutely space age terminal, 5 mins for moderate pre-9/11 style security, 5 more to pick up my ticket from a machine, then 10 to 15 to wait in the train until we leave. At 200 mph, and given Chinese airport security and endless air traffic delays, the nearly 1000 mile trip takes less time, has predictable departure and arrival times and you can go to the bathroom or walk around whenever you want.

  21. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @michael reynolds: A down vote just cause I hate you. 😉

  22. michael reynolds says:

    Fair enough. But you know who I hate? My kids, who think the rule applies to them, too. I was probably in my late 40’s early 50’s before I got to sit in the front.

  23. grumpy realist says:

    It’s gotten to the point where I very rarely fly anymore. Differential pricing–ok. But it’s like renting a car–by the time you’ve added on the luggage fees, the aisle-seat pricing, the not-waiting-30-minutes-at-the-security-counter pricing, etc. etc. and so forth, there’s whoops, an extra $150 or $200 added to the “price.” And because all of these differ according to airline and they don’t let you know until the end, it makes it very difficult to compare pricing. I often just say “oh the heck with it” and go with whatever Travelocity spits out first.

  24. John H says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Count me as an example of those who’ve moved on from flying on business. After a couple of decades worth of weekly trips to our locations around the US and Mexico, I now use video-conferencing and employ remote management tools. I could put up with the flying as long as the AA “angels” were making flying tolerable, and there was a certain cool factor in being a road warrior in the 90s. But, with the drastic decline in service levels for even “elite” frequent travelers, and the increased opportunity for a part in a security theater production, I finally bailed out. Now, if I can’t justify a first class ticket on a good airline, I don’t go.