The Little-Known Airline Seat Fees

In one of my recent video podcasts I got a very interesting question from Max in Dallas who asked, “When the hell did airlines start charging for seats?”

LISTEN: Rick explains when the hell this started.

Airline Seat Fees

Airline seat fees are becoming more common but you may not even know you pay them. I talk about this in a recent ABC News column but in a nutshell, some airlines have been adding seat fees for years, others are following.

Let’s be clear, not all airlines have seat fees but all airlines love fees; it’s a multi-billion dollar source of revenue and when there’s a demand for a service, fees will follow. That’s what we’re seeing with seats in economy, not the premium seats, just standard aisles and windows.

That’s where we want to sit and we also like sitting with friends and families and some airlines are capitalizing on this.

  • Passenger pays, or airline chooses: We see this on Frontier and Spirit where the cheapest fares come with a seat fee; you can either pay the fee and choose a seat at booking (prices vary but typically start at about $6) or pay nothing and the airline chooses for you. You might get really lucky and get an aisle or window but do not be surprised to get a middle seat.
  • Passenger pays, or passenger chooses late: We see this on Lufthansa where passengers can pay the seat fee for international flights and select seats at booking or pay nothing and wait to select a seat 24 hours before departure. Again, all that may be left at this point are seats in the middle.
  • Passenger pays for early boarding: Southwest does not call its EarlyBird option a seat fee but it acts like one. You see, Southwest’s open seating plan means whoever boards first gets the best seat selection and paying the $12.50 fee gives the traveler a better position in the boarding line.
  • Passenger pays nothing, gets no choice: Delta’s Basic Economy fares do not come with a seat fee because passengers do not select seats; only the airline does. Passengers who wish for a say in the matter can pay for higher-priced tickets in Main Cabin seating.

What You Can Do

What we recommend:

If you’re flying an airline that doesn’t allow seat selection as early as you’d like (or allows none at all) and you’re traveling by yourself, consider skipping the fee; a middle seat is not that bad on a short flight. On longer routes, look at the seat fees; only you can say what you can endure.

As for families trying to sit together, you can skip the fee and prevail upon the goodwill of seatmates to exchange seats with your family members. Give it a try but  – do not count on this!

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Updated: February 18, 2016