You Call This a Premium Seat? Airlines Attach Big Fees to Small Upgrades

You Call This a Premium Seat? Airlines Attach Big Fees to Small Upgrades
You Call This a Premium Seat? Airlines Attach Big Fees to Small Upgrades

When I booked a recent Virgin America flight from San Francisco to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., the airline offered me the chance to sit in Main Cabin Select -- for a hefty $500 more than the coach fare.

The upgrade offer seemed enticing: six more inches of legroom and free alcohol, cheese-and-fruit platters and other unlimited snacks. However, given that I was only paying $129 for the standard coach seat on the flight, the fee seemed a bit exorbitant.

I actually ended up paying $99 for the premium seat after Virgin America discounted it on the day of my flight. At the time, I assumed I'd upgraded to the first-class section. But I quickly found out that what I had purchased wasn't the best seat in the house after all. Main Cabin Select turns out to be a fancy name for sitting in the exit row.

Turning the Ordinary Into an Upgrade

Virgin America certainly deserves the award for creative repackaging in the airline seat fee game, turning formerly humble, if more comfortable, exit row seats into something desirable and high-class -- as if they were VIP tickets to a top concert or sporting event. Just to make sure customers in the exit rows and the bulkhead row -- the other Main Cabin Select seats -- know they are special, Virgin America has installed black leather seats for them. Regular coach passengers must make do with blue leather seats.

Virgin America isn't the only airline playing the extra fee seat game, though certainly no other carrier has the audacity to charge a premium of $500 to sit in the exit row -- even if it does offer an extra six inches of legroom.

Every major airline except Delta (DAL) is now maneuvering to bring in a little more revenue by charging extra for some of its coach seats. Delta tried to implement a similar policy two years ago, but backed down after its frequent fliers complained about not getting first dibs on the premium seats in coach.

But paying for a "good" seat has very different connotations among various airlines.

United Airlines (UAUA) gives you five more inches of legroom for its preferred coach-class seats. By contrast, when American Airlines (AMR) jumped on the bandwagon in August, it didn't guarantee additional leg room would come with its premium seats. The airline now charges between $19 and $39 for the "Express Seats" in the first few rows of coach. Most of the seats, except for the bulkhead row, offer no more leg room than normal a coach seat.

So how can American charge justify the fee?

Airline officials explained back in August that what customers were paying for with their Express Seat fee was the privilege of sitting in the front of the plane, as well as first priority to board and a grab a space for their carry-on luggage in the overhead compartments.

Earning Billions More By Making the Flight A La Carte

The only thing that's certain in the seat fee game is that the fees are here to stay. It's all part of the new a la carte menu that has been put into place by airlines, which now charge extra for everything from checking a bag to talking to a reservation agent when you buy your ticket.

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It's obviously paying off for the carriers. While federal officials don't break down how much airlines made from seat fees, airlines raised $7.8 billion in ancillary fees in 2009, up from $5.5 billion in 2008.

At a recent aviation conference I attended in New Orleans, US Airways Chief Operating Officer Robert Isom touted the success of its program charging for premium coach seats, and said the airline was exploring other ways it could increase seat revenue.

US Airways (LCC) charges $5 to $35 for its Choice Seats -- aisle and coach seats in the first few rows of the coach cabin, most of which provide no extra leg room. US Airways wouldn't answer my questions about to what else they have in store for customers.

Airline consultant Michael Boyd, whose Boyd Group International sponsored the aviation conference, described the extra seat fees as outrageous.

Boyd said on a recent US Airways commuter flight he was forced to pay an extra $5 for a premium seat, because there were no "normal" coach seats available. "The airline officials don't see how confusing and offensive these policies are to passengers,'' he said. "Chain gangs don't treat their members that way."

I've been pondering what's the next move for the airlines in terms of seating? Will airlines charge customers to be seated near the bathroom? Will there be a fee for VIP access to the refreshment cart?

It may sound silly, but a few years ago, who would have thought that an exit row seat could fetch an extra $500?

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