Photo by leocha

Airlines are running out of options for fees. It’s hard to believe that it wasn’t that long ago the main thing economy class travelers in the U.S complained about was airline meals. But, with rare exceptions now, onboard food, even snacks, in economy class are only available for an additional cost.

International airlines for the most part still serve food, but many of them charge for what they consider “preferred” seat assignments for long-haul flights. And “preferred” can be half the seats on the plane.

On shorter flights, such as intra-Europe flights, most carriers have only assigned seats at check-in — that process seems to work pretty smoothly. It’s the long overwater flights that really matter to most travelers anyway.

British Airways for years has charged for any advance seat assignments on all discount fares. Even in discount business and first class. (Although elite level fliers and clients of some travel agencies can get seats assignments for free.) Everyone else has to wait until check-in, 24 hours in advance.

Now Lufthansa, United’s major European partner, is instituting a pay-for-long-haul-seat-assignment policy of their own. For now, Lufthansa will be more generous than British Airways, as the fee only applies to passengers in the lowest booking classes. But, those lowest booking classes (W,S,T.L and K), are precisely the booking classes people who book early try to get for their vacation travel.

The fee will be $35 or Euros 25 per flight segment. Although Lufthansa says, “It will, of course, still be possible to choose a seat free of charge when checking in from 23 hours before departure.” (“Of course?” Is there any “of course” when it comes to fees and the airline industry?) Elite members of Lufthansa’s mileage program will be exempt, along with anyone traveling with them. But United ticketed passengers and other Star Alliance elite members will still have to pay.

In their announcement, Lufthansa says they are, “Following its competitors’ lead and will also be in a better position with this offer to satisfy the requirements of the different customer segments.” They explain, “It means that in future, too, we will be able to offer price-sensitive passengers flights at attractive fares, without having to give up our claim to provide a full service experience.”

Translation: Because they can.

Now, this new policy will not affect business travelers much, as they usually don’t book early enough to get the deeply discounted seats. And, no doubt their companies will reimburse the relatively modest charge. Solo bargain hunters will probably wait until check-in and take their chances for a seat.

But families who booked early to get the lowest fares will almost certainly not want to wait until the day before to get seat assignments and risk being scattered around the plane. This will mean for a family of four, $140 extra in each direction, a nontrivial amount.

In addition, I can’t imagine airport agents and flight attendants loving this new policy. It means that families who try to save money and who get separated will probably demand that it be fixed either at the gate or on the plane.

No word yet on if preferred travel agents will end up with an exclusion on this new policy. And certainly Lufthansa is within its rights to try to turn a profit any legal way it can. But this is yet another way that the skies are getting less friendly for families even when flying airlines once known for exceptional customer service. And, certainly less friendly for those who get begged to change seats with separated family members.