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
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.
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