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Aviation: Seat assignments versus revenue

Last week Digital Minister Margot James told a UK parliamentary committee that she believed airlines use “cynical, exploitative means… to hoodwink the general public.”

Continuing, she added: “Some airlines have set an algorithm to identify passengers with the same surname travelling together. They’ve had the temerity to split the passengers up, and when the family want to travel together, they are charged more.”

Strong words. The Aviation Oracle agrees that deliberately splitting up families with children to generate additional revenue – if indeed that is what’s being done by some carriers – is verging on unethical. Not only that, but if there is an accident safety could be compromised as family members seek out separated loved ones rather than focus on getting out as quickly as possible. Notwithstanding the morality of the act, separate seat allocations often delays check-in and boarding when groups attempt to play musical chairs with other passengers aimed at being able to sit together.

The UK government’s newly formed Centre for Data Ethics is set to investigate the matter. If the industry is found guilty of malpractice, clearer guidelines or regulation could follow. However, there might be another explanation:

  • Most narrow-bodied airliners – the aircraft that are typically used to transport us around Europe – have three seats either side of a central aisle. Many airlines, including some ‘full service’ carriers, now charge for preassigned seating, and levy a further premium for the more desirable locations. The ‘better’ seats are typically those with extra legroom, and in some cases those beside windows or aisles. Few airlines want to give up potential revenue from customers who are prepared to pay extra, by giving a desirable seat to customer who is not. If an airline charges for a preferred seat, most of which are by aisles or windows, and there are only three seats in each bank, it stands to reason that anyone who does not wish to pay will get a middle seat by default. And that means non-paying groups will get split up.​

Perhaps then this issue actually boils down to revenue optimisation rather than exploitation? The UK Civil Aviation Authority is already investigating paid seat assignments, and its most recent report suggests that the chance of a group being split up varies depending on the airline involved. The regulator supports the idea that safety is a reason to seat family groups together but we already know that some airlines are more determined than others to extract every last penny from their customers. The Aviation Oracle believes that families with children should not be split up on an aircraft. Husband and wife? Yes, maybe the same. But what happens when partners with different surnames travel together - should they face discrimination versus their married counterparts? It seems very likely that airlines will resist giving responsible adults, even those who are part of the same group or household, fee-free access to seats which could be ‘sold’ at a premium.

It could be then that there’s an argument for persuading airlines to abandon charging for seat assignments? The practice has become a lucrative source of revenue, and money not raised from customers who wish to select seats will have to be recovered from other activities. Would passengers be happy to pay higher ticket prices, extra baggage fees, or more for inflight catering instead?

Hopefully the Centre for Data Ethics will get to the bottom of the matter and make a ruling that works for families but doesn’t dent airline auxiliary revenue streams too much.

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