Ask LH: Can An Airline Charge Me For Seat Selection?

Hey Lifehacker, I was booking a flight from Melbourne to Sydney on Jetstar and I noticed that they were going to charge me $5 for choosing a standard seat as an 'optional extra'. It's not much, and of course I have no choice but to pay it, but it seems a little wrong. Are they allowed to charge extra for something as necessary as a seat on an aircraft? Shouldn't this price be worked into the initial ticket quote? Any thoughts? Thanks, Seat Dreams

Dear SD,

You're correct that airlines can't quote a ticket price that isn't the minimum you'd expect to pay. Since 2009, when laws banning deceptive "component pricing" were introduced, they have been required to include all applicable taxes and fees in their quoted minimum price. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission secured an agreement in 2011 with eight international airlines, including Jetstar, to make sure that rule was followed.

The sneaky element is that while the airline has to quote the minimum price any consumer would have to pay, that doesn't mean it can't charge for extras. Most airlines impose a disproportionately high fee for paying by credit card, for instance, but that doesn't have to be included as part of the minimum cost if there's a way of paying that doesn't require it (such as BPAY or using a specified credit card associated with the airline). Similarly, the minimum fare might be a hand-luggage-only deal: if you want to check baggage, that will often cost extra (especially on budget airlines) .

Seat selection falls into the same category. Many airlines charge a fee for exit-row seats. Some -- Jetstar among them -- charge for the ability to choose your seat at all. In Jetstar's case, you pay $5 simply to choose a seat, $11 for seats nearer the front of the plane, and $24 for exit row seats.

Although it isn't particularly obvious, Jetstar does offer the option of not paying for seat selection (and that's why it doesn't have to include the fee in the quoted original price). If you choose not to pay, you will be assigned a seat at random when you check in. This is a lucrative idea, since many people will choose to pay $5 rather than being stuck with a middle seat. But it isn't compulsory, and you can save $5 if you don't care where you sit.

What Jetstar does which isn't illegal but is dubious is that it automatically selects the seat selection fee option and forces consumers to deselect it if they don't want it. The airline does the same with baggage, defaulting to adding one item of luggage and forcing you to remove it if you don't plan on taking any extras.

This is known as drip pricing, and the ACCC is currently investigating the practice. It doesn't approve of it, but it isn't illegal -- yet. For now, as a consumer your best strategy is to carefully check every stage of the process when you're booking a flight. Don't pay for options you don't want.

Cheers Lifehacker

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    And after jet star have charged you a small fortune for seat assignment they will do whatever they want when you checkin. Flew on jq once with a family of 4. One booking number so they knew we were flying together paid for seats together. And not exit row seats only to be split up. No excuses no refunds no apologies. Only 2 screaming children on the plane got someone thinking this was not right. That is why I no longer fly on the QF group.

      If $5 is a small fortune, maybe you should save the money for food. Or are you just exaggerating. It is shit they split you up tho. I'd ask for money back

    From experience, they can also not give you your selected seat even if you pay the extra fee. On a fully booked flight from Sydney to Queensland last year, my wife and I got reallocated to accommodate a couple of family bookings after they merged two flights. Probably wouldn't have minded, except (a) they didn't advise us of this beforehand, and (b) they wouldn't refund the fee.

      This is where I'd be going to Fair Trading - If you pay for something and it's not provided you're entitled to a refund. Plain and simple.

        I absolutely should - and if I'd paid more, I probably would. As it stands, I'd rather just save myself the hassle and never fly Jetstar again, which is morally pretty weak, I know.

          Agree'd. The contracts/ticket T's & C's are also needlessly complicated.. I'm 100% sure they have accounted for the need to do so absolutely. Not so plain and simple.

        Except you aren't paying for the seat, you are paying for the service of changing your seat. Once you've done that, you have consumed what you paid for. Providing the seat is secondary. I don't agree with it but I can guarantee Jetstar's legal team have covered this with the T&C's.

        If you read the terms and conditions it actually says your seat selection is a "preference and not guaranteed."

    In the past I've avoided the fee and still managed to sit next to my wife. But we will always choose any alternative to Jetstar if it's available at around the same price.

    We flew with Air New Zealand to and from NZ recently and didn't choose seats. The 2 of us flying were seated next to each other in our normal preferred window and middle seats, albeit towards the back of the plane. There weren't many other options through on line or at the airport check-in. I doubt we would have got much better seats if we paid for the basic choice...

    Recently flew with Qantas overseas and the asking price for a seat (not exit row - just normal) in economy was $50 - one way. Another $50 for the return trip.

    I fly a fair bit, and I have to say JetStar and Tiger are the worst, and I'm not surprised they are struggling. Also I prefer to fly at the back of the plane. Seats at the front are normally more expensive. Sitting in the middle is more of a hassle when boarding and alighting because passengers seem to converge in the middle when boarding from the front and rear. Sitting at the back means you can board and get off quicker via rear, the rear rows are sometimes emptier, and you have a better chance of survival at the back of the plane during an accident. But you're the last to get food service, and unaccompanied minors are normally seated in the last row, so you may have to put up with crying and rowdy behaviour.

    The thing about the the Jetstar seat selection process that I find deceptive isn't just that seat selection is on by default, it's that when they present it, *they've already assigned you a seat* ('to save time'). This randomly assigned seat is a default for the seat selection page, but since you didn't choose it, it's really easy to mistake it for the 'I don't want to pay to choose my seat' option.

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