Matthew Gabel is mad. He recently paid $2,431 for two tickets from Oakland to London on Virgin Atlantic. It seemed like a good deal — until he tried to select his seats.

“That’s when I learned of Virgin Atlantic’s new seat-selection policy — an additional 25 euros per seat — a total of 100 euros for our roundtrip flights — for seats selected after June 25,” he says.

Think you’ve seen this story before? Maybe not.

What follows is Gabel’s correspondence with Virgin Atlantic, which illuminates the flimsy reasoning for imposing these “gotcha” seat selection fees. It also underscores the sound reasoning behind the federal government’s decision to force airlines to disclose these so-called “options” for air travelers in a proposed new regulation.

Gabel’s story is a little complicated because airlines like to make it that way. Virgin Atlantic doesn’t fly from Oakland to London, so his flights were on a codeshare partner, Delta. From Oakland to Las Vegas, Gabel was flying on Delta, but thanks to the miracle of airline codesharing, Virgin Atlantic could claim it as one of its flights.

Under the terms of his original booking, he could select his seats 60 days before departure. But when he tried to reserve his seats 60 days out, he was told that there was a new seat selection policy. Now, the reservations would cost an additional 100 euro. He could also wait until 24 hours before his flight and take his chances with a random seat selection. (Think leftover middle seats.)

“We who purchased tickets before the new seat-selection fees were introduced should be allowed to select seats free of charge; to do otherwise is unseemly,” he wrote to Virgin Atlantic.

Here’s how the airline responded:

Thank you for taking the time to contact us about your upcoming flights. I’m sorry to hear that you’ve been left unhappy with the new Advanced Seating Assignment system that has come into place.

We’re sorry to say we haven’t always been delivering on our promise of honouring your seat selection choices over the last few years. So, we’ve been working hard and investing in ways to improve the whole process.

We have realised it is operationally very difficult to guarantee the location of every seat if they are all chosen in advance (because we sometimes change the aircraft type on a flight, which changes the seating configuration).

If fewer passengers choose their seats in advance we will be able to re-seat them in very similar seats to their original choices. This is why the charge has been introduced. You’ll still be able to choose a seat free of charge 24 hours before your flight when you check in. This will start happening on a route-by-route basis. The best place to secure your seat remains online, through Manage my Booking or online check in, which opens 24 hours before your flight’s departure.

Thank you again for contacting us – I hope that you all have a wonderful time travelling.

Seriously? Are you suggesting that Virgin Atlantic, an airline with some of the most sophisticated reservations technology on the planet, was having trouble finding everyone a seat assignment, and that’s why they started charging for assignments?

Please.

Gabel’s response was to the point: that’s total nonsense.

Virgin Atlantic’s policy is unfair to the point of constituting a deceptive business practice.

Virgin seems to justify its new policy by citing “operational” difficulties in assigning seats on different aircraft. But for all the talk of selecting “free” seats 24 hours prior to departure, the vast majority of all desirable seats will have already been “pre-assigned” and will no longer be available at such a late date.

Virgin’s purported operational challenges regarding aircraft seating do not justify implementing unfair, hidden fees after the time of ticket purchase, particularly when Virgin did not inform purchasers of the additional, impending fees at the time of purchase.

Caveat emptor? If so, it requires that the buyer be informed in order to beware.

Valid points. The seat selection fee wasn’t disclosed at the time of his purchase. At this point, I would have filed a complaint with the Transportation Department.

Here’s Virgin Atlantic’s response:

I’m sorry to see from this that you continue to be disappointed with the answers provided to you.

The seat assignment system is an additional service that we have always tried to provide as an additional service, free of charge to our customers to improve the overall experience.

Unfortunately, due to the ever changing nature of the airline industry, we have been unable to guarantee these requests, and this has left some of our previous customers unhappy.

As a company, we decided to make improvements to the system in the hope of offering a better service. This, however, did come at a cost to us as a company. This additional cost is unfortunately passed on to our customers and as you may be aware, our competitors charge for this service also.

You still can pre-assign your seat free of charge; however this can only be done at a later stage in the process. Unfortunately, we are unable to guarantee any passenger the opportunity to sit together as operational changes affect this. I can assure you, however, that our team at Las Vegas will endeavour to assist you should you be unable to pre-assign during online check in.

Again, Mr Gabel, I am sorry that the changes have been met with some disappointment, but I’m sure that we will be able to complete your travel without issue. Again, we look forward to welcoming you onboard in August.

Again, this is a preposterous explanation. Virgin is claiming that, somehow, it will cost them more to issue a seat assignment this summer, and that it’s passing the cost along to you, should you choose to pay it. Or you can get it for “free” if you wait long enough.

So, does that mean that once the additional “cost” of the system is covered, Virgin Atlantic will revert back to “free” advance seat assignments? I don’t think so.

Gabel doesn’t buy it. Here’s what he wrote to Virgin:

What you conveniently overlook is that, while competitors also “charge for this service” — including Southwest, which our family regularly flies — your competitors unequivocally inform all prospective ticket purchasers upfront of additional/optional charges to pre-assign seats on an “early bird” basis.

In my case, neither Virgin nor Delta included any mention of additional seat-selection charges when I purchased tickets in February for late August roundtrip. In fact, Virgin’s seat-selection policy then in effect was later changed to add such fees.

That constitutes misrepresentation/deception by Virgin Atlantic; it’s highly unfortunate that Virgin is unwilling or unable to acknowledge this basic concept.

And that’s why I’m going to escalate this to the DOT. Virgin Atlantic should be ashamed of itself.

I agree. This should be brought to the attention of government regulators and Virgin Atlantic ought to be ashamed of itself, if not for deceiving Gabel, then for offering such a flimsy excuse for a fee. This seat selection charge is nothing more than a money grab from passengers who want the “option” of sitting together on a long flight.

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