How Do Airlines Allocate Seats To Passengers?

You are getting married in just two months but that’s not all. Your best friend is getting married just two weeks after your wedding date. So what do you do? You gather your girlfriends, book a ticket to Ibiza and have the best (hen) party of your life.

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You book 15 tickets with Ryanair from Birmingham to Ibiza and as the excitement keeps pumping you up, you enter your information for check-in. As soon as it’s done, the excitement turns into anger, rage, and disappointment.

Every single one of your friends from a group of 15 got the middle seat in a different row!

Couple on the Ibiza beach

Even though this seems like almost impossible odds, it’s what happened to Steph Vickers and Faye Cutler, two best friends who were celebrating their joint hen-do.

The return flight cost them £220 per person and “I just thought it was really disgusting how much they expect you to pay, on top of what you’ve already paid, just to sit next to somebody. It’s unacceptable, really,” said Steph Vickers, the soon-to-be bride. She felt that the airline was trying to squeeze every single cent out of her pocket. It’s like if you choose not to pay for the seat, you would be at the mercy of the airline.

Most of us have had similarly bad experiences with airline seat allocations. And the first step in solving this problem is understanding how airlines categorize seat selections.

Airline seat selection category

The first thing to understand is that different airlines have different policies when it comes to seat allocation. The old economy, business, and first class tickets which signalized the comfort level of the flight are now exchanged for a range of different tickets which offer different perks and price tags. You knew what economy, business, and first class meant, but when you read “Family Plus package”, “Flexi Plus” or “LowFare+ticket,” you have no idea what they mean.

Economy class seats with passengers

It becomes like a minefield of terms nobody understands.

But it can all be boiled down to these four categories:

  1. Open seating — these are open seats which can be booked in advance and there is no charge for them. Passengers simply choose a seat for free. American airlines has this kind of service for standard seats.
  2. Open paid seating — these are open seats which can be booked in advance for a premium (pay extra). This can sometimes be offered for free for frequent flyer elite members. Many airlines have cards which show you just how many miles you have flown with them and what your status with them is (silver, gold, platinum, etc.).
  3. Seats which require certain parameters — There are multiple seats and rows which require certain parameters to be met. Exit rows, seats for passengers in wheelchairs, front (bulkhead) rows, seats for unaccompanied minors, and even rows specially designed for mothers with infants. The last example of a mother with infant concerns a cradle which can only be put in certain rows.
  4. Seats that are held by the airline for airport check-in — These seats are usually somewhere between 10-20 percent of the total seats on the plane. Airlines keep these seats for the airport staff to allocate according to the special needs for that specific flight. Sometimes the seats need to be moved around, like with the example of people who need to sit together (elderly person and his caretaker) or families with kids.

Now that we understand the selection categories, let’s see how do airlines allocate seats to passengers.

Children, groups, and individuals

The procedure when it comes to children is that they need to be seated next to at least one adult. Even though this is the practice for most airlines and they do this seat allocation free of charge, there are others (Ryanair) where a parent needs to reserve (pay) a specific seat to have his child seated next to him.

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Read more: Is it safe to travel via Turkish Airlines?

British Airways, Thomas Cook, TUI, and Virgin Atlantic all guarantee that children under the age of 12 will be seated next to one parent.

Air France and KLM do this for the entire families while American Airlines guarantees that children under 15 will be seated next to one parent.

British Airways airplane

Other airlines such as Flybe, Norwegian, and Jet2 say their systems seat children next to one parent “in 99% of cases” even though they can’t guarantee that it will happen.

Groups have different ways of sitting down together for free and the first advice is to make your check-in as soon as possible. If you do this as soon as check-ins open up for airlines, there is a big chance that your group will be seated together free of charge.

Most airlines open up their check-ins 24-48 hours before flights departure so be ready to online check-in your group as soon as you can.

There was a study done by the civil aviation authority (CAA) in December 2017 on the chances of being separated if not paying extra to guarantee seats by the airline. The chances of being separated from the group if you didn’t pay extra were between 12 and 18 percent for most airline companies (British Airways, EasyJet, Flybe, Jet2.com, Monarch Airlines, Thomas Cook, TUI Airways, Virgin Atlantic). The only two airlines that had a bigger percentage of separating groups which didn’t pay extra are Emirates with 22 percent and Ryanair with staggering 35 percent.

So if you are flying as a group and you haven’t reserved a seat for the group, most airlines won’t separate you in over 80 percent of flights. But if you are flying with Emirates or Ryanair, you might want to pay extra for those joint seat numbers.

Read more: 5 Rules to Getting the Best Seat on a Plane

The CAA’s research indicated that the passengers are not happy when they don’t sit together with their group. Almost half (46 percent) of respondents felt negatively toward the airline when they found out that they needed to pay more if they wanted a seat next to their group.

While we are at the CAA’s research, let’s take a look at what else they found out and what kind of regulations will they force on the airlines.

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CAA’s review of allocation policies

Civil aviation authority (CAA) found in their research that most regulations regarding the allocation of seats are on the airlines themselves and that they vary considerably. Different regulations mean that people who are traveling with young children or the ones that have disabilities or reduced mobility should be seated next to the people who are accompanying them whenever possible.

But these rules don’t apply to everyone even though they should. For some people sitting together isn’t optional, it’s mandatory for them to even take a flight. The research showed that just over half of respondents reported that their airline informed them before they booked their flight that they would need to pay to make sure that their group sits together.

Ten percent said that they were informed about this after booking, while another ten percent said that they were never informed about having to pay extra to sit together.

There are a lot more problems in the lack of regulation when it comes to seat allocation and the CAA is bringing transparency into it. The key issues that require further investigation regard transparency of paying extra when there is a low chance of people actually being split up, passengers with reduced mobility, and the impact on families who are traveling with children— especially those younger than 12 years.

But all of this seat allocation which requires extra pay fills the accounts of airlines.

How much are airline seats worth? Around $5 billion a year

Airline ancillary revenue was around $82 billion worldwide in 2017. About 20 percent of all ancillary revenue comes from onboarding services which means that the airlines cash in around $16 billion worldwide from it.

CAA found out that the UK consumers collectively paid between £160-390m per year for allocated seats. Two-thirds were for seats that cost between £5 and £30 and further 8 percent paid more than £30.

Read more: Can You Take a Pen on a Plane?

It’s up to the civil aviation authority to figure out if these charges are fair and transparent and act accordingly.

We can just hope that their actions will be in our favor.