Are Airlines Thinking About Seat Fees All Wrong?

Seat assignments used to be free. That’s still true if you show up at the airport without one. You have to sit somewhere! But if you care about where you sit, airlines may only make a limited number of seats available for free to most passengers (if any at all).

  • People care about where they sit
  • Some seats are better than others
  • And there are a limited number of those
  • So seat assignments have value

For years airlines ‘gave away this value for free’ to customers. That’s no longer true. And the tax code encourages airlines to charge for seats, too. That’s because base airfare for domestic flights is taxed at 7.5%, while fees aren’t covered by this excise tax. Airlines have an incentive to move money from the fare into fees.

Some third parties have come up with ways to take the idea of ‘seat assignments have value’ even further, building dating apps. People might theoretically pay for a seat assignment next to someone with shared interests that’s open to dates. There was AirDates, Wingman and several more. Fee king easyJet even tried its hand.

But a lot less has been tried at capturing value in the business space. During the Great Recession British Airways gave away tickets (they had a lot of empty seats) to highlight the role that meeting people inflight plays in building business opportunities as well as traveling to develop relationships.

Maybe with managed business travel down opportunities are more limited than they were before the pandemic, but it’s still significant. (And important players in business also travel for leisure)

Twitter’s Strip Mall Guy sees an opportunity:

Right now passengers gain the benefit from whomever they’re sitting next to, but the opportunities are far from optimized. And passengers are the ones gaining all of the benefit – just like when passengers used to gain all of the (extra legroom) benefits from being assigned to an exit row and once airlines started charging that value began to be split.

  • How valuable would it be to sit next to the CEO of a company you’re trying to pitch?
  • Or the most knowledgeable person in your industry?

How much would you pay to sit next to someone like that? How much would they demand in exchange for mentoring you or listening to your pitch instead of watching The Big Bang Theory?

And since the airline already has the customers and suppliers on both ends of this two-sided market, how much could the airline make as a middleman? A percentage of sales?

Just another one of my whacky revenue-raising ideas that might make travel better and pad airline bottom lines, like that airlines should sell food in domestic first class.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

More articles by Gary Leff »


  1. Yeah, I remember the seating dating app and the sit next to a CEO app. I even tried the seating dating app a few times. That was about fifteen years ago or so. All good ideas but not well executed in reality.

    It’s been a while, and I expect some brainiac in the SV to bring some algorthym AI seating assignment for love/career development 2.0.

    I mean, AA in the 1970’s had its economy class piano bar and EK currently has its business class A380 lounge, but for the rest of us stuck in these ridiculous seats next to boorish other passengers, some seat assingment 2.0 seems promising.

    And I didn’t know about the tax differnential in seat price excise tax against amenity price fees tax.

  2. Can’t wait to sit next to a self-professed executive who’s eager to teach me their multi-level marketing program! Whoohoo!

  3. Someday, airlines will charge for priority exit.

    Announcement: Welcome to Atlanta, where the local time is 3:06 pm. For the safety please remain seated until the seat belt sign is turned off. After the seat belt sign is turned off, only those with Priority DepAArture may enter the aisle and deplane. You must show you boarding pass with the Priority DepAArture eagle or you will be held at the jetway with a restrAAint.

  4. I can see some “professionals” offering $1k for a seat to facilitate initiation into the mile high club. Gives new meaning to Comfort +.

  5. I would enjoy discussing loyalty point strategies with someone. but how to execute this would be difficult

  6. I do not like it when people sitting around me are talking to each other, as this can make it harder to work or get sleep done. Because of this, I would prefer if people not focus on meeting each other during flights and just do quiet activities that keep to themselves to prevent them from disturbing other passengers.

    @Derek, I remember when during Covid, Aeromexico required deboarding by role and specifically announced which row could deboard at what time. This could fit well with your charging for deboarding first scheme.

    While a lot has been studied about the most efficient ways for planes to be boarded, I have wondered why similar studies are not done for deboarding planes, and I would support airlines requiring airplanes to be deboarded in the most efficient manner. It seems to me that on a narrow body airplane, all of the aisle seats should be able to deboard first, since people sitting in these seats can quickly get their items from the overhead bins and move ahead. I do not like the societal norm of expecting people to wait until everyone in the row in front of them has moved forward. It seems more efficient if for everyone, the people who were ready to go with their stuff could just go quickly and the others can wait until they are ready.

  7. I would be willing to pay extra to sit next to someone who has no children. Just like a smoking section.. What do you prefer? Children or No Children? Maybe a family section .. Say the last five rows near the restrooms for easy family access.
    BTW we should ban oversize backpacks too.
    Happy Holidays!

  8. How much do I need to pay so that I don’t need to sit next to an influencer or blogger or anyone who might include me in their selfishness?

  9. Strip Mall Guy is a psychopath and the absolute worst. But hey a few responses on Twitter to you to boost your ego and you do his promotion for him as a result. Shame

  10. Used to be a Gold Member with British Airways for almost a decade, I fly transatlantic paid Business Class or miles only. Since my flight pattern changed I would not keep the Status on BA. Therefor having to pay for Seat reservation in Business Class as well, even on Miles.
    I have not touched a BA-Flight for that reason and chose to either sit in Business on a AA or Iberia operated flight when burning through the last 600’000 Miles in that BA Account.
    So seat reservation fees can also backfire and be a bad business move. I think it’s unacceptable in Business/First to charge for Seat reservations OR Lounge Access (Qatar!). Don’t penny pinch that Segment. There is no reason, than greed! In Economy if you want to compete with Ultra Low Cost Carriers, then be my guest. But do it right like Delta, let them wait outside until everyone else has boarded.

  11. I want to be left alone when I travel, particularly for work. Why would I talk shop when I’m flying somewhere to work and half likely to be stuck on a red-eye because airlines are all stupid about transcontinental trips to lower tier airports

  12. Aeroplan, Avianca, Qatar, and many other airlines charge for seat choice, some even for long-haul F/B.

Comments are closed.