Airlines are developing clever news ways of extracting more money from passengers. They include fees for pillows, baggage check and phone reservations. They’ve also squeezed in more passengers by shrinking the size of seats on airplanes.
But now they’ve discovered there’s also money to be made from their customers’ desire to escape the worst, most uncomfortable seats–the middle seat in economy class.
Low-fare airlines like Spirit Airlines (SAVE) and Frontier Airlines pioneered seat reservation fees. If you wanted a reservation, you had to pay extra. In 2012, Delta Air Lines joined these discount airlines when it began testing a new fare that didn’t include the ability to select a seat. Last year, Delta expanded these fares, and now competitors plan to follow suit.
But there are also strategies, some tried-and-true, some new, that may allow you to escape the dreaded B-row in economy.
First, let’s dispense with the obvious– you could buy a first-class seat or fly on a smaller aircraft, which has no middle seats. Those aren’t practical solutions for most passengers, since a first-class seat is costly and the smaller aircraft, which are even more cramped than the larger jets, could leave you begging for a middle seat.
So what are the alternatives?
Pay for a window or aisle. Of course, airlines want you to shell out more money for a seat assignment. On Lufthansa, for example, you’ll shell out anywhere between $11 and $65 for a seat assignment, depending on where you’re traveling. That’s the airline industry’s preferred solution, but if you don’t have the extra money, it may not be yours.
Join a frequent flier program. Card-carrying elites can avoid the middle seat. American Airlines elite-level frequent fliers, for instance, have early access to non-middle seats and get discounts on preferred seats. Reaching elite status means spending more money and flying more.
Negotiate with a passenger. You’re allowed to switch seats after the cabin doors close as long as you remain in your class of service (and as long as someone else isn’t sitting in the seat you desire). You can throw yourself on the mercy of a flight attendant and ask for help. SeatGuru also has good negotiating tips.
Pay a passenger to move. Yes, there’s an app for that. Seateroo, the app, enables sellers to enter their seat number, set a price and accept offers from users. Seateroo takes 15% of the price, notes Digital Trends.
Plead with a crew member. Gate agents have the ability to switch seat assignments without charging you extra, and will often do it if you’re traveling with young children and don’t have seats together. You can ask a flight attendant for help, as long as you have a good reason. Broken limbs, disabilities, traveling with children — all are grounds for playing mile-high musical chairs even after you have a confirmed seat.
Book unpopular flights. This may be the most effective strategy that doesn’t require paying more. Book a seat on a flight that’s unlikely to be full (fly mid-week or take the red-eye for best results). After the cabin doors close, find the nearest comfortable seat within your class of service and move.
Help may be on the way
Squeezing passengers — both figuratively and literally — in order to make more money has caught the attention of lawmakers. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) and Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) this week introduced an amendment to the Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Bill to establish a minimum seat size and a minimum distance between rows of seats to protect the safety and health of airline passengers.
The Senate passed the FAA Reauthorization Bill earlier this month and it now goes to the House of Representatives for consideration. Both the House and Senate previously rejected similar amendments, but as the summer travel season gets underway, momentum is building to establish these minimums.
Setting a minimum size would ease some of the discomfort air travelers feel when they’re stuck in a middle seat. It would also undermine one of the airline industry’s favorite tricks for earning money: capitalizing on our collective desire to avoid pain and discomfort.