You Call This a Premium Seat? Airlines Attach Big Fees to Small UpgradesWhen 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.
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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John and Jenn

hmmmm.... so to save time and avoid traffic I would need to: Pay for a seat on the plane, pay extra fees including gas surcharges and Airport taxes, pay for a special seat, go to the airport, take off my SHOES, have my naked body scanned into a computer and viewed, go to the counter, pay to check and/or carry on bags, pay for a snack... etc. Train travel is sounding nice, heck even Greyhound sounds pleasant in comparison. LOL.

December 14 2010 at 2:03 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

here's a thought - make the tickets' base price cheaper. Since we're stuck with these "additional fees", by the time it all adds up, you'd be paying the same price you would have originally before these fees were put in place. do airlines really not want people to fly? because they sure do a good job of ticking people off. I know - cut back the salaries of the airline CEO's and other fat cats (they get overpaid as it is!) - by saving that way it could result in cheaper fares for everyone! And maybe happier customers.

December 14 2010 at 1:22 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

I HATE sitting in or behind an exit row...the seats DO NOT RECLINE!!!! This is a big deal for me because if I am traveling in the early morning or late evening I want to be able to recline and try to sleep on the way to my destination. No way would I spend that amount of money to give up the abilty to recline my seat for more leg room!

December 14 2010 at 1:06 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
John the Beast

I'd suggest the gov't put some dollars into high-speed trains but I'd probably be called a socialist.

December 14 2010 at 12:58 AM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply

I have an issue with Southwest Airlines. I recently paid more than 600.00 for a round trip ticket to KBNA (Nashville). As a frequent flyer I see the following practice occurring more and more so be aware. Here is the catch,,, You purchase "business class" in order to board first! But,,,,, hang on, more times than not, you will have a person holding a blue pre boarding pass. Some perhaps are justified but many are not. I have an issue when the person performs a circus routine cramming baggage in the overheads at the front of the plane AND here it comes, yes the entire fricking family feels the need to board with this one person that has preboard! So I was holding boarding pass A-1. Once I boarded the first flight of the day, the first three rows were taken by the families that felt the need to board all at the same time. My suggestion is, Allow the people that paid the outreageous fees for business class and then allow the family of 15 preboards to board afterwards. There is absolutely no reason for this manuever. I will stop purchasing business class until SWA changes its policy. No use in paying for very expensive tickets when they allow a heard of very able people with blue boarding passes to preboard. Another option would be, "sure prepboard, but take your behinds to at least row 10 and have any seat you would like". The system is being abused and some of the SWA employers could give a s--- less if you bought a high business class ticket or not. When I complain to gate agents they agree it screws the business class person and that until people complain SWA will do nothing! Signed "A frequent flyer". SWA is right about one thing, the flying public really do have a choice of which airline to fly!

December 13 2010 at 10:47 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

A lot of corporations and even the federal government buy the tickets for their airline bound employees but not the extras. The employee pays the luggage charge and months later is reimbursed. Now the employees start choosing which airline to fly I believe it will be the one with the least extra charges...when possible fly Southwest. When to where Southwest will fly you!

December 13 2010 at 10:07 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Use of toilet is next. Probably the very last thing will be charging for the air that is provided. Then they'll probably charge if you survive a crash. These charges sicken me, but there isn't a lot you can do when the "cheap seats" are already sold.

December 13 2010 at 10:06 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

And that is why we fly Southwest!

December 13 2010 at 10:04 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

people should refuse to pay extra for stupid things,and like the story talked about ask questions like what is mid cabin seats are.duh it is either first class or reg seating. quit using airlines that make these charges or just quit complaing about them

December 13 2010 at 9:54 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Between the worthless security hassles at the airport and the gouging the airlines are doing at every turn, we've just quit flying. It's not any more expensive to just drive, even when you factor in hotel rooms and food on the way to and from. No parking fees at the airport/lots or scrambling to find someone to drop you off and pick you up. No exorbitent prices for food so awful you wouldn't feed it to your dog. And best of all? No getting sick after every trip because the recycled air in cabin makes sure you get a dose of every bug every passenger on the plane is carrying.

December 13 2010 at 9:48 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply