The UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has published the initial findings of a review of how airlines allocate seats to passengers, which has prompted the industry body to call for greater transparency on charges and procedures.
A survey of consumers carried out for the review found that the majority list having to pay to sit together on a flight as one of their biggest concerns. The CAA says this was reinforced by the number of passengers who directly contacted the authority to ask for advice.
Furthermore, many of those polled said they are confused by airline seating procedures because they vary from carrier to carrier. Whether passengers were separated from their group depended on which airline they flew with, bringing uncertainty for them.
Perhaps more alarmingly, this confusion led some passengers to pay extra to choose seats next to each other when the airline would have put them together anyway. People involved in the survey were more likely to pay the fee to choose their seats to avoid being split up on the flight, even if the chances of that happening were low.
Fee structures also caused some confusion, with the majority paying between £5 and £30 per seat per journey, although some revealed paying up to £100.
These fees are bringing in an extra £160 million to £390 million per year for airlines - £74 million to £175 million of which could have been spent unnecessarily as passengers would have been seated together anyway.
All airlines included in the review – the top ten based on passenger numbers – admitted they had received complaints about allocated seating. One received nearly 3,000 complaints last year alone.
Based on these findings, the CAA is asking the airline industry to make their seating policy more transparent and easy to understand to avoid confusion among passengers.
The CAA will spend the coming months working with airlines to “make prices clearer and more transparent”. It will also work with other regulators on the use of “allocated seating algorithms”.
Tim Johnson, policy director at the CAA, said: “The practice of charging for allocated seating has clearly become part of airlines’ pricing strategies, which can impact especially on certain groups, such as those with accessibility needs and those travelling with young children. We are also concerned about how transparent and easy it is to compare prices and make an informed buying decision.
“Today we are proposing a new framework, following engagement with stakeholders, which will be used to assess airline seating practices. This includes transparency, options to add information about travelling with children, older people and those with accessibility needs.”
Baroness Liz Sugg, UK aviation minister, added: “Passengers rightly expect to be charged fairly for services and allocated seating is clearly a concern for those flying. This report shows the Civil Aviation Authority is making good progress in working with airlines to ensure that seating practices are as transparent as possible.”
View a copy of the full report here