Get Ready to Pay More for a Better Seat on United and Southwest Airlines

Los Angeles International Airport on Thursday, May 24, 2018. Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder

Get ready to pay more for airline tickets. Again.

United and Southwest are the latest airlines to add fees that will boost the cost of flying — if you are at all particular about where you sit.

Later this year, United plans to begin charging extra for seats toward the front and middle of the plane, just behind the extra-legroom seats the airline calls Economy Plus, company spokeswoman Maddie King said. This puts the airline on a par with rivals American and Delta, she pointed out.

The seats won’t have extra legroom, but they’re more desirable to many people because they’re closer to the exit.

Travelers can avoid the fees by choosing an economy seat farther back in the airplane. The fees also will be waived for high-level frequent fliers and some corporate customers in a “preferred” program that began this month.

“It’s just kind of giving more options to customers,” King said.

If any of the seats are available 24 hours before flight time, they’ll be up for grabs for free, she said. By that time, however, it’s less likely that rows of seats will be available for families and other traveling companions who want to sit together.

Once upon a time, not that long ago, coach passengers could select any seat in their section for no extra charge. (Southwest has always had a different system, but we’ll get to that in a moment.) Now, a dizzying array of choices is available that has enabled airlines to earn millions of dollars from fees.

Southwest, which doesn’t allow customers to choose their seats before they board, increased its EarlyBird Check-In price on Aug. 29. It went from a flat $15 to $15, $20 or $25 each way, depending in part on how popular Early Bird Check-In is on a particular route and the length of each flight. The price jump is the latest for Early Bird Check-In, which cost $10 when it was instituted in 2009, according to the airline.

The fee gives fliers a chance at a better seat by bumping them up in boarding position; Southwest boards passengers in groups. Those with EarlyBird Check-In will have their boarding positions reserved starting 36 hours before scheduled departure. Most passengers can reserve their boarding spot no more than 24 hours in advance.

In a statement, the company touted its policy of checking up to two bags for free, unlike its competitors who charge for checked baggage, and said EarlyBird allows the airline to avoid “nickel-and-diming” its customers.

Susan Jacobson is an editor at The Penny Hoarder.