What’s next for airline fees — “super priority” boarding? (Don’t laugh)

by Janice Hough on September 23, 2009

econ plus

One hot trend in the airline service fee business, is paying for better seats and or earlier boarding. Offers range from Southwest’s $10 priority boarding fee, to a sliding scale of charges Delta and Northwest have for aisle or window seats towards the front, to the fees that can top $100 on United for economy plus seating.

And travelers seem to love the idea. Perhaps it’s because the idea of better seats, or a chance for better seats, makes people somehow feel special compared to their fellow passengers. And let’s face it, several hours in a middle seat ranks high up there with traffic school and waiting at the DMV in terms of least popular common experiences.

In any case, Southwest’s priority boarding, combined with their “Business Select” fares, which are changeable fares with early boarding and a free cocktail or two, are so popular that regular passengers who aren’t paying extra had better be sitting ready – or using an automated program – exactly 24 hours in advance if they want to get in the first boarding group.

In fact, when my father recently flew Southwest, and professed inability to figure out the system, I checked him in for a boarding pass probably 23 hours and 59 minutes before his flight. As it was, we barely made the A group.

And on United, where Economy Plus really does mean a better seat, or at least a seat with more legroom, the program is so popular that routinely elite-level frequent fliers cannot find seats available. While my sample is admittedly unscientific, I would estimate that of my elite clients, well over half the time there are no economy-plus aisles or windows available for flights booked less than a month in advance, especially on long-haul routes between say, Washington or Boston and California. For clients who book less than a week in advance, such seats might be available at most ten percent of the time.

Now, with United, checking and rechecking often means a seat could open up, especially as waitlisted upgrades cleared, but clients who don’t have the time to do that, or don’t pay an agent for them to do it for them, are likely to end up in middle seats.

So what’s the next step?

Well, it seems logical that if people will pay something for a better chance at a good seat, why won’t they pay more for a still better chance at a seat. Especially for last minute business travelers. For example, Pre-early boarding, at a higher charge? Or with airlines who preassign seats, a small number of seats held back even from those who pay the standard fees, for those who are willing to pay double.

Think I’m joking? I wish. And no doubt when the first airline ups the ante, there will be protests. And there will also be passengers lining up to pay.

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  • Doug

    One of the additional fees that United offers really has me upset. It is now possible to purchase the right to use the premium check in and securinty lines, regardless of your status level. The check in line doesn’t bother me as, like most frequent travellers, I use online or mobile checkin. However, selling access to the premium security lines basically negates the value of that “perk” offered elite members. In many places (SFO comes to mind..) the “elite” line has more people in it than the regular line. And, unlike frequent travellers who know the drill, a lot of the people who buy this option haven’t a clue what to do. They try to carry on more liquids than allowed, don’t remove shoes, can’t find boarding pass, etc etc. All of this means more time lost for the people behind them in line.

  • Jim Bob

    I wouldn’t worry too much about that high ‘A’ or low ‘B’ boarding pass on WN. Just because you’re A59 doesn’t mean there are actually 58 people ahead of you to board. While they’ve been reserving slots for people willing to buy Business Select or EARLY BIRD check-in, there are often times large gaps between, say, A5 and A16.

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