AirTran adds fee to reserve best seats

June 21, 2007

Want to make sure you get a decent seat on your next flight? How about a coveted exit row seat? If so, it may cost you an extra $10 to $30 round trip if you're flying on AirTran Airways.

The discount carrier recently began charging extra fees if fliers using its lowest fares want to pick where they sit in advance.

Previously, passengers using the carrier's sale or discount coach fares couldn't pick seats until they checked in for their flights --- either in person or online. They still have the option of doing that with no extra charge.

But AirTran fliers using those fares now also have the option of paying an extra $5 each way to reserve a seat at the time of booking. They can pay $15 extra each way for an exit row seat. Those seats, adjacent to emergency exits, have more legroom and often fill up well in advance.

An AirTran spokeswoman said many customers are glad to have the option, but Atlanta lawyer Jay Barber doesn't like the extra fee. Most big airlines don't charge for any advance seat reservations, and last week he took Delta Air Lines to Philadelphia rather than pay extra to reserve a seat.

"I'm just appalled by this and told them so," said Barber, an AirTran regular.

AirTran's seat fees don't apply to higher fare categories; those fliers, along with members of the frequent flier corporate travel programs, can continue to reserve seats at the time of booking with no fee attached, AirTran spokeswoman Judy Graham-Weaver said.

Such pricing moves aren't unheard of. Northwest began charging $15 extra for aisle, window and exit row seats last year. On its lowest fares, Air Canada charges extra for seat assignments, checked bags and onboard meals.

Even giant discount carrier Southwest Airlines, long known for free-for-all seating, has considered charging for assigned seats.

But AirTran's move could put it at a pricing disadvantage compared with rivals that allow free advance seat assignment on all fares.

"This is pure profit to the airline," said Henry Harteveldt, travel analyst for Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass. He doubts it will become a trend because airlines don't want to anger customers at a time when fares have risen significantly in recent years.

AirTran has better odds of making its fees stick, Hartveldt said, because "they're adding a choice. They haven't taken anything away from the customer."

Graham-Weaver said the airline decided to offer a seat assignment option at the request of travelers. "The feedback ... has actually been pretty positive," she said.

AirTran sent e-mails alerting regular customers but didn't announce the change in a news release.

When booking certain tickets online, AirTran customers are asked whether they want to pick a seat. The Web site then shows color-coded seats that can be reserved for $5 or $15 extra.

"We're not trying to pull anything. We just want everybody to see the option," said Graham-Weaver.

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