NEW YORK —If you’re flying this summer, be prepared to kiss your family goodbye at the gate. Even if they’re on the same plane.
Airlines are reserving a growing number of window and aisle seats for passengers willing to pay extra. That’s helping to boost revenue but also making it harder for friends and family members who don’t pay this fee to sit next to each other. At the peak of the summer travel season, it might be nearly impossible.
Buying tickets two or more months in advance makes things a little easier. But passengers are increasingly finding that the only way to sit next to a spouse, child or friend is to shell out $25 or more, each way.
Some families are reluctant to pay more with base fares on the rise. The average round-trip ticket this summer is forecast by Kayak.com to be $431, or 3 percent higher than last year.
“Who wants to fly like this?” says Khampha Bouaphanh, a photographer from Fort Worth, Texas. “It gets more ridiculous every year.”
Bouaphanh balked at paying an extra $114 round trip in fees to reserve three adjacent seats for him, his wife and their 4-year-old daughter on an upcoming trip to Disney World.
Airlines say their gate agents try to help family members without adjacent seats sit together, especially people flying with small children. Yet there is no guarantee things will work out.
Not everyone is complaining. Frequent business travelers used to get stuck with middle seats even though their last-minute fares were two or three times higher than the average. Now, airlines are setting aside more window and aisle seats for their most frequent fliers at no extra cost.
For everybody else, choosing seats on airline websites has become more of a guessing game.
To travelers who haven’t earned “elite” status in a frequent flier program, flights often appear full even though they are not. These casual travelers end up paying extra for an aisle or window seat believing they have no other option.
As flights get closer, many seats airlines had set aside for those willing to pay a premium become available at no extra cost.
“Airlines are holding these seats hostage,” says George Hobica, founder of travel site AirfareWatchdog.
Airlines are searching for more ways to raise revenue to offset rising fuel costs. In the last five years, they have added fees for checked baggage, watching TV, skipping security lines and boarding early.
Now they are turning to seats.
Since last summer, American, Delta Air Lines, Frontier Airlines and United Airlines have increased the percentage of coach seats requiring an extra fee. Some, like those on Delta, JetBlue Airways and United, come with more legroom.
Allegiant Air and Spirit Airlines go one step further, charging extra for any advanced seat assignment. On Spirit, passengers who aren’t willing to pay the extra $5 to $15 per flight, are assigned a seat at check-in. The computer doesn’t make any effort to keep families together.
Delta, Charleston’s largest carrier, just launched a discounted “Basic Economy” fare on certain routes where it competes with Spirit that doesn’t include advance seat assignments.
“Airlines have to be careful. They can only push this so far before they risk incurring the wrath of customers or the government,” says Henry Harteveldt, co-founder Atmosphere Research Group.