Is American Airlines moving towards charging for all advance seat assignments?


American has come out with a “Preferred Seating” plan. It’s hardly “preferred” to consumers and it may herald the start of an even worse plan. Here’s why I think so.

My, the worm has turned. Years ago, American Airlines was a favorite of many travelers for their “More Room Throughout Coach” flights. The gimmick was simple. On routes catering to business travelers, the airline simply removed some rows of seats, so that everyone had more leg room.

Unfortunately, the strategy, while popular, did not generate enough extra revenue for management to keep it.

Even if passengers were drawn to the extra room, American judged it more profitable to put the rows of seats back. Some look at AA’s marketing of this “More Legroom in Coach” to be a textbook example of how not to bring in new customers. In any case, the final chapter of this initiative found passengers squeezed again by AA with no alternatives.

Competitor United Airlines, watching from the side, adopted a modified extra legroom plan with their “Economy Plus,” that has become one of their outstanding virtues even through bankruptcy and labor problems. But, American stuck to their regular less-pitch seating.

In the new seating scheme, American’s premium seats are simply about location, not legroom. Aisles and windows in the front have been reserved for elite passengers. (Exit rows, as with most airlines, only for the most elite passengers.) For as long as I can remember, this has meant a relatively few rows, say four to six, held back for those elites.

Now with the “Preferred Seating,” all front-of-the-plane aisle and window seats, except exit rows, will be available for anyone willing to pony up the extra charge for them. And the “preferred” section has been expanded to include up to half of the plane.

For example, on a Thursday flight I booked for a client over a month in advance from Chicago to Orange County, there were 36 rows in coach, and aisles and windows were blocked for elites and paying passengers back to row 28. Not surprisingly, the eight rows available in back had no aisles or windows remaining.

Maybe American only wants the illusion of aisle and window seat availability while denying it to all but the earliest booking passengers and those willing to pay a surcharge. Those of us who are suspicious of the airlines see a growning similarity to Americans’ “oneworld” partner, British Airways.

British Airways, for those who don’t fly them, basically abandoned the idea of free advance seat assignments about two years ago. BA still has exceptions for elite-level frequent fliers, full-fare travelers and for preferred clients and travel agencies. However, most travelers must wait until online check-in 24 hours in advance, or when they arrive at the airport, to choose their seats. Of course, non-elite passengers can pay a not insignificant surcharge, from $38 in coach to $90 in business class, for an advanced seat assignment.

Now, there was some initial outrage at this policy, which even means that passengers using discounted business class fares have to pay for advance seating, but travelers seem to have gotten used to it.

If it’s working for its partner, British Airways, why shouldn’t American Airlines be the first major U.S. carrier to follow suit? I wouldn’t bet against it.

[Editor’s note: USAirways has been following a similar pattern. AirTran (soon to be gobbled up by Southwest that has no reserved seats) has been charging for any reserved seat for years.]

Do you readers think this is an inevitable wave of the future?