Unbundling Spreads to Business Class: Pay for Premium Seat Assignments

Years ago all economy passengers were equal in assigning seats, although when I first became a frequent flyer United would block the seat next to me as an elite so that if it was possible to have an empty seat next to me I would. And then they introduced economy plus seating, extra legroom seats that elites could reserve free (and at the time it was also available to full fare customers and to Star Alliance Gold members too). They didn’t initially monetize those seats.

Airlines eventually realized that since not every seat is as good as every other seat, and consumers realized this too, they could charge more for the better seats that were in more demand. Even airlines without extra legroom seats charged more for the seats at the front of the plane and for aisle seats that customers wanted most. Everyone except US Airways let elite members have any coach seat free.

British Airways was first to apply this logic to business class, charging business class customers for seat assignments, although elites and full fare customers can reserve seats in advance of check-in for free. The idea was that advance seat assignments are valuable to customers, and if they’re unbundling why not unbundle business class fares too? British Airways has so many (subpar) business class seats, and sells them often at a lower price than competitors, that this seemed to make sense.

But still all business class seats were created equal, more or less, when it comes to seat assignments except that some business class seats are held by some airlines for top elites. For instance after US Airways eliminated three-cabin international first class they didn’t bother taking the seats out of their planes and held back the first row first class seats from the general assignment pool.

Now Swiss is doing something new – they’re going to charge extra for the more desirable business class seats starting next month (although top tier Senator and HON Circle members will be able to receive them at no extra cost).

Credit: Thompson Aero Seating

As a loyal and valued customer, we would like to inform you in advance about the following changes in SWISS Business.

With the remodeling of SWISS Business on long-haul routes, we have introduced exclusive single seats that are marked by more space and discretion. Due to the overwhelming demand concerning these “Privacy seats”, we will be giving our guests the opportunity to reserve these seats for a fee starting at the end of March.

As a token of our appreciation, we are delighted to continue offering these seats to you at no charge, as long as they are still available at the time of booking.

On behalf of SWISS, I would like to thank you sincerely for your loyalty and your continued trust. We look forward to seeing you onboard again soon.

Best wishes,

Markus Binkert
Chief Commercial Officer
Member of the Management Board
Swiss International Air Lines

Swiss uses the Thompson Vantage seats that I find especially narrow — American and Delta use them on their Boeing 767s because they’re able to squeeze in four across.

One feature is that the solo window seat on the left side of the cabin gives you two consoles, one on each side of the seat, rather than just one. This is known as the “throne” seat. And that’s what Swiss will apparently be charging for.

The unbundling of business class continues, though we haven’t yet seen business class fares that exclude lounge access and earn no miles.

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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 »

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  1. So in Swiss’s case, if someone pays $10,000 for a full fare ticket they will have to cough up extra money to pick that seat even though they are probably the highest yielding customer in the cabin.

    Pretty lousy change if you ask me… I think only the deeply discounted business class fares should be subject to unbundling, but everyone buying mid-range to full fare as well as top tier elites should be exempt.

  2. I find Swiss rather full of themselves. You can buy a full F ticket on Swiss metal but coded as UA and they won’t let you in their F lounge at ZRH. I can’t think of anywhere else – including the Concorde Room, LH First Class Terminal nor SQ Private Room that has the prohibition of codeshares when they are on your metal.

  3. I think this is a result of Lufthansa’s mismanagement of forecasting and fleet purchases. They simply bit off more than they can chew. Lufthansa brand is flying A380’s and 747-8 that they can’t fill while Swiss and Austrian are dropping economy rates and squeezing premium passengers for revenue because they can’t fill their 77Ws. In reality, Lufthansa should be flying the 77W and Austrian and Swiss should have gotten 787s or maybe even updated A330s. There is just no demand on that level into/out of Vienna, Zurich or Geneva.

  4. As someone who just flew Swiss long-haul in C for the first time a couple of weeks ago, this actually doesn’t bother me.

    I was traveling on the 773 ZRH-LAX, and a number of “thrones” (er., “privacy seats”) were available, but as I’m only a 1K million miler, I wasn’t eligible to select them, unless they were available within 24 hours at check-in, which of course they weren’t. I wound up sitting in the center.

    I absolutely would have paid to get one of those privacy seats – they are clearly a better experience than the “normal” C seats.

    I do feel a bit bad for the HON’s and SEN’s, because I think that a lot of people will be like me and willing to pay, so last minute bookings will get the less desirable seats. If LX cared about their HON’s and SEN’s, they’d only make those paid seats available 72 hours or so prior to booking.

  5. Building off what @greg99 wrote, the motivation of protecting good seats for passengers with status who book last minute is in part the reason for BA charging for seat assignments in Club World, since some CW seats– particularly those on the Upper Deck– are much better than others. Additionally, not all seats are available for everyone to purchase, further protecting them for the status flyer on last minute business.

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