Is it time for airlines to draw the line on fees?

Here’s a troubling event witnessed by Stavros Katsas on a recent Spirit Airlines flight — a scene rendered even more disturbing in light of last weekend’s deadly crash-landing of a passenger jet in San Francisco. He was seated near an emergency exit row and saw an elderly passenger take a seat in that row.

The Federal Aviation Administration requires emergency exit rows to have a minimum amount of space between them in order to facilitate a quick evacuation of an aircraft. For the government, it means a safer plane. For passengers, it translates into more legroom.

But to an airline like Spirit, it’s yet another opportunity to charge passengers extra. Which it does. Katsas estimates that the slow-moving woman paid at least $50 to sit in a “premium” seat.

There’s a catch, though: customers in an emergency exit row may need to assist during an evacuation, which can be a physically demanding job, according to the FAA. Although we don’t have many details about the Asiana Airlines flight from Seoul, South Korea, that burst into flames after crashing at San Francisco International Airport, we know that a quick evacuation was a key to saving lives.

“An announcement was made that if any of the passengers sitting at the emergency exit rows did not feel comfortable with the tasks requested, they should contact the crew to be re-seated,” says Katsas. “Of course, no one that had just paid $50 would accept that.”

Should they charge for it?

Are airlines compromising safety for profits? Katsas wonders about that. And I wonder if there are some things for which airlines should never charge.

When it comes to airline fees, Spirit doesn’t leave anything on the table. The airline squeezed more than 38 percent of its revenue from extras like fees for carry-on luggage, printing a boarding pass at the airport, and seat reservation fees, according to a recent report from consulting firm IdeaWorks. All told, Spirit’s customers spent an average of $49 per ticket in additional fees, the most of any domestic airline.

“So what if, in case of an emergency, a passenger was not able to perform the duties coming with the privilege of that extra leg room and there were fatalities as a result of a delayed evacuation?” wonders Katsas. “Who takes the blame for it? Is it the passenger’s fault who accepted the responsibility or is it the airline’s fault that passed on that responsibility to someone who could not perform it so they could earn some extra cash? Where do you draw the line?”

Ah, where do you draw the line? Great question.

When it compromises safety. Airlines should not charge extra when it places their passengers in any kind of danger. This doesn’t just apply to emergency exit rows, but also to the overall amount of space they offer in economy class. Remember, back in the 1970s 36 inches of seat “pitch” was considered reasonable. Today, you have to pay a fee to be seated in “premium” economy, which comes with about the same amount of legroom. Memo to airlines: You ever heard of DVT?

When it’s cruel and unusual. We have our Bill of Rights in the United States that prevents a patently unnecessary and barbaric form of punishment, and while I realize this will come across as somewhat hyperbolic, it doesn’t necessarily extend to air travelers. Today it’s possible to be deprived of food, drink and adequate oxygen on a flight. The remedy? Carry a credit card so you can pay for a basic meal. If you want to carry portable oxygen, better check with the airline first. There are numerous restrictions. My colleague Charlie Leocha recently pointed out that dogs have it better on planes than people.

When it’s a bait-and-switch. I’m sure I’ll get criticized for saying this, but here it goes: Marketing a product as all-inclusive and then “unbundling” it without clearly disclosing it is just wrong. Advance seat reservation fees are a good example, with everyone assuming that you can secure a pre-assigned seat on a legacy airline. When the average passenger buys a seat, they assume they can also get a reservation, and when it costs extra, they don’t think the airline is playing fair. They’re right. Instead of taking things away and giving them back for a fee, airlines ought to be looking for new ways to earn ancillary revenues, as I pointed out in a story a few years back.

I think there is a line when it comes to airline fees. I think everyone knows it, even a discount airline like Spirit. We may disagree about where the line is, but we all know it exists.

Personally, I think we’ve crossed it, but my opinion doesn’t matter. It’s up to government, which has already taken some steps to stop this nonsense, to regulators, legislators — and ultimately, to you — to say when we’ve reached that point.

Have airline fees crossed the line?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • polexia_rogue

    if you get a ungodly cheap fare you have to expect fees- that is just the norm.
    the airlines see that an ad for “50 dollar airfare!! (plus fees- in tiny writing much later)”
    goes over way better then “all inclusive airline ticket for 200 dollars!”

    and as for the elderly person in the exit row- there is no law against that. when you book most flights (not necessarily on sprint – because i would not be caught dead on their site) there is a pop up informing you that you have to be 15 or older to book an exit row seat. if someone looks older all they have to say is “I am in great shape” or “i served in the military and have skills”– and the flight attendants cannot move them.

    and in the grand scheme of things it’s either A. piss of an elderly passenger or B. run the risk that in the very unlikely even of a crash she will not be able to help out.

    since you are more likely to be in a car crash then a plane crash- most aircrew will roll the dice on option B

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Whether the airlines charge additional for the exit row or not is a red herring. It is relatively meaningless. The airlines have an affirmative duty to make sure that anyone seated in the exit row is able to hear and understand English, be between a certain age range, not have any dependents onboard, and be able to lift the exit door. This is true regardless of what the passenger paid for the seat.

    I am perfectly happy for the airline to charge extra for an exit row seat as it is a more desired seat. BUT, if someone pays extra for the exit row seat and they do not meet the FAA regulations to sit in that seat or even just change their mind, then they should be removed and refunded any special exit row premium charged.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Who says they cannot be moved. The FA can move you. I’ve seen them do it.

  • Chester P. Chucklebutt

    I say nix the refund…disclose to the passenger upfront what the requirements are, and if they try to game the system, the fee is the price for playing.

  • Jennifer M.

    Granted it was an international flight with a non-US carrier, but yesterday I was on a flight from LCA to TLV and the flight attendant told a pregnant lady who had been given an exit row seat that she was not allowed to sit there and moved her (I think) to a bulkhead seat. It’s a 40 minute flight so it would never occur to me to pay extra for additional space so I don’t know if she had requested the seat or just luck of the draw as it was only a moderately full flight.

  • TonyA_says

    Interesting article about class struggle in the sky at NYT.
    Looks like only way to get some decent space or anything more in steerage class is to pay for more fees.

  • Raven_Altosk

    A few years ago, I was on a flight (Delta, ewwww) where a woman who clearly suffered from mental illness was seated in the exit row with her parents. The father had a “Platinum Flier” and “Million Miler” tag on his laptop case.

    Throughout the flight, it became more and more apparent that the woman was a five year old trapped in an adult’s body. She fussed, she whined, she babbled about things that didn’t make sense loudly enough I could hear her two rows ahead. At one point, she got up and started opening all of the overhead bins looking for “Harry Potter.” Yeah. FAs had to get involved, but no one asked this group to move, probably because of Daddy’s status. (I believe this was before Delta introduced their “Diamond” level)

    Anyway, I guess Delta doesn’t care about the safety of it’s passengers if they seat someone with such serious issues there.

  • John Baker

    “Marketing a product as all-inclusive and then “unbundling” it without clearly disclosing it is just wrong”

    I wholeheartedly agree but … I haven’t seen an airline market their product as all-inclusive in a really long time. Remembering marketing from a bygone era doesn’t constitute the airline as marketing it that way now. If you have seen them do it, time for a false advertising claim.

    Back to the issue at hand… I really don’t care how the people that end up in exit rows get there. What I do care about is when the FA stands up and yells “Evacuate” that the person clears the way for me to get out and doesn’t impede my progress. It’s the airlines responsibly to insure the people seated in those rows can do that especially on RJs where the number of doors exceeds the number of flight attendants.

  • BobChi

    I think it’s indecent to take a tragedy like Asiana and use it as a grist for your pet opinion piece, previously written, with no evidence that anyone unqualified was on the exit row. At least let the dead be buried before you exploit them for your purposes. Shameful.

  • EdB

    What are you talking about? He used the recent tragedy as an example of how a quick exit can save lives. He used a real world, recent example, to illustrate the concept that Stavros Katsas was expressing. Chris wasn’t using it as a pet opinion piece.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    How is one gaming the system?

    In any event, a bad idea. It would be a bad policy to give unqualified people any disincentive to voluntarily relinquish the exit row.

    A real life scenario. I booked a round trip ticket on a regional jet. I was in the very coveted exit row each way. While at my destination I tripped, fell, and twisted my ankle. As a result I had a limp. I went online and relinquished my exit row seat because I didn’t feel qualified with an injury that made me move relatively slowly. Had I paid extra for the exit row seat and wouldn’t be refunded, my inclination might have been to take the seat that I paid extra for and only leave if the FA removed me.

  • Mark

    I fly Spirit alot and have ony paid for luggage once and never paid for a seat. If you wait until you get to the airport you can request a seat for free but you only get it if its available so you cant always get it much like any airline. I have to say they seem to have the best on time record for Fort Lauderdale of any other airline i have flown. So far out 10 flights in the last 2 years none have been late.

  • BobChi

    He wrote the piece and posted it in several places days ago. He just added the sentence about Asiana to repost now. That’s exploitative in my opinion. He has written similar pieces several times before.

  • Taylor Michie

    Agreed. I don’t mind airlines putting a premium on the exit row seats, so long as everyone seated in the exit row is willing and able to perform the duties (potentially) required of them.

  • IGoEverywhere

    You do not have to pay for a single extra. You choose to pay for luggage, seats, early boarding, pillows, etc. We call it a necessity, the airlines call it $$$. As far as the old lady in the emergency row, fille a comment with the FAA, they don’t like that type of profiteering against safety.

  • EdB

    He updated a story with a current and relative real world example to emphasize the point being made. That is far from exploiting. Chris was trying to show how a quick exit can save lives. He used a real situation showing how the quick exit did just that.

  • SoBeSparky

    No to the poll. Absolutely.

    1. “When it compromises safety.” On the airlines I fly, the flight attendant physically moves to each and every exit row, makes eye contact with each passenger so seated, and asks them if they are capable of emergency procedures. The attendant requires an affirmative verbal response of “yes,” not an exception to the announcement. If this is a Spirit Airlines problem, then don’t generalize.

    2. “When it’s cruel and unusual.” No customer at a concert or ball game gets free food and beverages. Everyone pays. Nothing cruel and unusual about that. As for carrying the potentially hazardous cargo of compressed oxygen, that is up to the airlines and is so noted under prohibited items. No secret there, either. Anything unusual in such an over-regulated space as an airplane deserves checking and then double checking.

    3. “When it’s a bait-and-switch.” and “…everyone assuming that you can secure a pre-assigned seat on a legacy airline.” Since when? Airplanes have been general admission on Southwest since the beginning, and on legacy airlines, many times you can buy a ticket and then find you cannot get an assigned seat. This has been true for decades for operational reasons. “Everyone assuming” is a silly proof of anything. Reality is today, not days or years gone by.

    This seems like column space in search of a topic.

  • Chris Johnson

    Airlines crossed the line with this a long time ago, long before basic safety even became a concern. They were able to do it after the demise of Skybus, which I’m sure most readers are familiar with – essentially a cheap fare, “bare bones” airline that charged extra for everything, most notable the checking of luggage. For the five months the airline was in existence, every legacy airline had to allow at least one checked bag free with your ticket, or else they risked the stigma of being compared to Skybus. Once Skybus was out of the picture, the legacy airlines almost immediately began charging fees for checking luggage and as many other things as they could get away with. Now Southwest Airlines seems to offer more than the so-called “full service” or legacy airlines (isn’t checked baggage still free on them?), yet none of these airlines seem to care about compared to Southwest.
    Which is more than fine with me – I used to live in the DC area and took Southwest out of Baltimore whenever I could. I’ve lived near Newark for some time now and didn’t take Southwest because I wasn’t going to truck out to Long Island for any flight, as much as I like that airline. But now they have service from Newark and I look forward to taking them again in the future. They seem to be the only airline that doesn’t nickle-and-dime you and their employees really seem to care about their customers – really, no comparison to any other airline as far as I’m concerned. They may be classified as “no frills” but they are more “full service” than any other airline I’ve been on in the last ten years or more.

  • PolishKnightUSA

    The travel industry in general seems to like to play games with fees perhaps because when you’re on the road, it makes it that much harder to walk away from plans you’ve made months in advance.

    If a “fee” is unavoidable, then it should just be added to the base price. Hotels are notorious for doing this with “resort fees” which should be banned.

    For the other stuff, I’m ok with charging for checked bags, etc. since I see how that is an expense for the airlines and encouraging people to pack lighter is helpful to add BUT it backfires when EVERYONE brings a beast carryon and holds up the planes and security. The same for meals and drinks in some ways. Do you want to encourage passengers to be hungry and thirsty in a tube that’s already filled with stress? Hmmm, that leads to alcohol: Perhaps it should be banned entirely considering the air rage scenarios we’ve read about. I LOVE a glass of wine to celebrate a vacation trip but the altitude probably doesn’t help some people handle it.

  • Chris Johnson

    I might agree with #1 and #3, but as for #2, you can always get up and leave a concert or ball game early, and go somewhere else to eat instead of paying $6 or more for a hotdog (you might not be able to get back in, but you won’t go hungry or thirsty).

  • JewelEyed

    I think the exit row should have no premium on the extra space. That is your reward for being willing and able to perform a vital and demanding function if disaster strikes, free extra leg room.

  • JewelEyed

    It would have been exploitative if everyone had died because of a slow evacuation, but as it stands, I do not see your point at all.

  • SoBeSparky

    And who leaves a $150 concert seat or NFL game to get a reasonably priced Coke? You are a captive customer both on a plane and at a concert/game. Just what is “cruel” and “unusual” about all this???

  • BobChi

    But you could, in the case of a flight:
    1) Eat before you leave your home or hotel
    2) Eat on the way to the airport
    3) Eat at the airport
    4) Bring food from home or buy food along the way to eat on the plane
    5) Buy food at the airport to take on the plane
    6) Buy the food that is offered for sale aboard the flight.
    7) Buy food upon landing.

    Really long flights do have complementary food. There is nothing in human physiology that requires a person to ingest food in any given five-hour period of life (except in the case of certain people with specific conditions, who obviously need to plan ahead).

  • BobChi

    I am trying to conceive of how his crusade against airline fees has any relevance to this unfortunate accident.

  • EdB

    The relevance is by charging a fee for that exit row, it can put everyone in danger if someone who is unable to perform the tasks and because they paid the fee creates a conflict for the airline. If they move the person, they have to refund the fee and put someone in the seat who didn’t pay. It encourages the airline to leave the person there.

  • TonyA_says

    Here’s what you really need to know about fees – it hides the true cost of travel and it make is much more difficult for buyers to compare and for human travel agents to serve you.
    The training for ancillary fees on some GDS has already begun. After taking a quick look at it, I said to myself – “this is it, you need to retire and enjoy life”. Soon the day will come when travel agents will charge you extra fees to explain the airlines fees and add them to your ticket. A fee over a fee over another fee. Looking forward to retirement :)

  • Chuck Kellner

    The airlines are, I think, entitled to charge for their “extras”. And so long as the “basics” are included in whatever base fare they’re offering, then we are all on notice. It’s when the “basics” are going or gone that we have to turn up the heat and keep it on. For example,

    BAGGAGE: If there are charges for checked baggage, AND there’s no room in the overhead bin to carry on, AND the airline doesn’t carefully warn or screen what you can bring on board, AND you’re penalized if you gate-check because you’re going to miss your connecting flight, then they’ve gone too far. There has to be EITHER reasonable room in the overhead OR checked baggage included in the fare, otherwise it’s a Catch-22. I tend to travel very light and small, and still I sympathize with others who can’t and are trapped standing on long baggage-check lines to pay, or they’re delaying flights because their bags can’t be accommodated.

    If airlines and regulators are serious about safety, anyone buying an exit-row seat should have to certify their physical ability to sit there, whatever the minimal regs are, and the certification should print automatically on the boarding pass. That way, there’s no question. Someone who can’t meet those requirements are going to get tired or embarrassed with having their boarding pass checked for that certification and they’re going to buy a different expensive seat.

    Adequate seat pitch and oxygen are without a doubt being pinched, and if we are going to be able to fly and keep our health and individual safety, the regulators have to get involved and stay there.

  • Frank Windows

    … And even then it wouldn’t have been exploitative. Chris is right: what the op witnessed was nothing less than spirit trading safety for profit. The asiana crash is a perfect example of why exit rows should be assigned to the most able to help, not sold to those most able to pay. relax, bobchi. just because one mentions a tragedy doesn’t make it exploitation.

  • Chris Johnson

    I don’t know about #4 and #5 – some airports confiscate that stuff at the metal detector. You certainly can’t bring your own drinks through, and some things with any kind of gel in them routinely get confiscated and wind up getting donated to USO lounges where they are suddenly deemed safe again (pisses me off but that’s another story). #6 is not realy an answer – of course you could buy food on the plane but you are a captive customer and have to pay the outrageous prices.
    Regarding SoBeSparky’s other comment, you may be correct about people not leaving a concert that they paid $150 for to get a cheap Coke, but you are forgetting the obvious one here – they CAN get up and leave, whereas you can’t do that on an airplane.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    I skimmed the article. I just can’t get worked up about someone who elects to pay for than I getting more. My only question is, am I getting a fair deal for my money

    Chris often bemoans the special treatment given to “elite” (a terrible term) and other high value customers compared with the abysmal treatment in steerage, oops, I meant coach. The answer is fairly simple. The coach product is viewed as a commodity by the traveling public. Consumers purchase commodities based on one metric, price. That’s why your grocery store doesn’t sell apples by brands. All Granny Smith apples, regardless of the source, are sold at the same price in a given store.

    By contrast people who fly regularly in the front of the plane do not view premium classes as commodities. They strongly differentiate the premium flight experience between carriers. Just wander over to Flyertalk and you’ll quickly note that most of the discussion revolves around premium class experiences.

    When the product is not a commodity, then the carrier has incentive to upgrade the product accordingly because those customers do consider brand loyalty.

    Consider that even in your grocery store, certain premium brands have evolved from the commodities: organics, microbreweries for bear, coffee sourced from particular farms, locally sourced foods, etc. Consumers have rewarded those suppliers by accepting higher prices for those items.

    Yet, consumers have not rewarded airlines nearly as much when they introduce incremental upgrades such as American’s More Room Through Coach.

    Where I disagree with Chris is that he places the blame on the carriers. I place the blame on us, the traveling public. The carriers are acting exactly like every other business selling a commodity and in a manner consistent with economic theory. As long as we treat air travel like a commodity we should not be surprised that the experience continues to degrade.

  • DavidYoung2

    It’s SPIRIT! Come on, do you think they wouldn’t compromise passenger safety for $50.00? They’re the WORST airline in the world, and they’ll sell your safety for $50.00. Probably less if they had to.

  • Londoner1936

    Totally agree, and was surprised on reserving two economy plus seats on a long 11 hour flight to Europe, that United’s pop-up concerning the emergency row seats clearly says who should or should not be sitting in that row … but you still had to pay the premium if you wanted to sit there.

    These seats should be offered free to the able and willing, and it does not matter how infrequently air crashes occur, for when they do, you need the able and willing ready to help.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    You can always bring your own. I often fly at 6am. No time to eat breakfast. I grab food from the terminal and bring it on board

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Bring food that you know will pass TSA.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Perhaps that is one reason why so called elites are exempt from many fees, as they would have the experience to figure in the cost of travel fairly easily.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    One minor point about exit row seat. If someone is not qualified, they would merely be reassigned to another seat. No additional cost should be involved. Also, someone may be qualified when they purchased the ticket and become unqualified later. As I explained, I twisted my ankle and didn’t feel that I should be in an exit row under the circumstances.

  • Miami510

    Permit a bit of sarcastic jocularity:

    Auto salesperson:
    This handsome new car in any color will be $5,000.

    Customer: Great. I’d like to drive it home right now.

    Salesperson: We have a few more items before you take off with it. Did you want a motor, wheels, gas tank, steering wheel, and glass in the windows? How about a horn and our display panel package? That’ll come to $24,892 plus tax and tags.

  • TonyA_says

    Isn’t most of the complaints and confusion mainly in the economy (coach) cabin?
    I have no qualms about making the FC and BC cabins as luxurious as possible and hopefully the airlines will charge accordingly. In a way these expensive cabins may actually subsidize the flight :)

    I think the problem in coach is aggravated by trying to differentiate the cabin by seating options. Charging more for window or aisle or position in the cabin is getting to a level of absurdity for some airlines. Why can’t they simply make a premium econ cabin like BA/AF/CX etc. have and create a fare class for it?

    I am actually supporting some government regulation that requires some minimum standard and uniformity on coach cabin. We need to understand easier what plain vanilla means and the easiest way to enforce it is to make coach cabin uniform.

  • TonyA_says

    Or they will get pissed off and move to another airline plan :)

  • Alan Gore

    I see nothing wrong with unbundling so long as it’s applied to extras that are actually optional. Feel free to unbundle meals, premium seats, and extra checked bags.
    But this week I took US Ait to Dallas. In both directions, the first bag charge caused everyone to attempt to carry on all their worldly goods. By the time they got around to ‘Zone 5’ ( what am I doing in the Zone 5 ghetto when I reserved eight months ahead?) the overheads were full and they were gate checking every bag. Corporate cluelessness, indeed!

  • bodega3

    Spirit is a prime example of catering to the cheap a$$ flying public. They just took the regular airline model and dumbed it down because the flying public wants it…until they realize it is really now costing them more and are currently whining about it.

  • Michael__K

    I agree. However the same disincentive can apply to the airline that has to relinquish revenue every time a crew member judges that someone who paid the extra fee isn’t physically fit to operate the exit door.

    I’d like to think that the decision would always be made purely on the safety merits without any regard to whether the passenger paid extra. But if there’s any airline with a reputation that would leave me less than 100% confident about this it would be Spirit.

  • Chris Johnson

    Hahaha! Ain’t that the truth.

  • Crazy Kid

    My mid 60’s mother has severe osteo arthritis, with severely VISIBLY compromised hands, and has had two joint replacements in her lower body. She’s also severely overweight, has asthma and is short part of a lung due to surgery when I was a child, and has a host of other physical ailments. She has told me before that she books exit row seats for the extra room because they are more comfortable for her. When I heard this and told her HORRIFIED that she absolutely was not a suitable candidate for an exit row and should not be booking those seats she proclaimed dismissively that she was perfectly capable of opening an exit door. SHE IS NOT. She completely overestimates her abilities, underestimates what it takes to open those doors, and is just using denial to justify her selfish behavior that will endanger others in event of an accident. But the thing is – No flight attendant has ever challenged her to my knowledge despite her obvious hand malformations and lack of physical condition. I’m not sure if it is because of fees, or not wanting to upset the customer (have a hard time believing it is that because they are usually such storm troopers about things like turning off devices), pressure to get everyone seated to keep a schedule…but for some reason FA’s are NOT paying much attention to who is in those seats on a lot of flights.

    I did see on a recent flight when I was boarding an extremely elderly and frail man in an exit row seat who was being moved to another seat by FA’s. It stood out because it was so rare. This man could literally barely walk and I don’t know who booked him that seat (he didn’t look coherent enough to have made his own travel plans) but they should have been smacked.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    3 thoughts.

    1. Crew members generally have no idea what a given passenger has paid. Numerous ways of getting in exit rows exist without additional fees including having status, seat open at check in, etc.

    2. Crew members don’t seem shy about kicking people off airplanes and refunding the entire fare.

    3. Flight attendants get fined for noncompliance.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    I don’t want some bureaucrat thinking they know what’s best for me, safety issues notwithstanding.

    I think the best way is to require disclosure so that customers can make informed decisions. Of course the disclosure will have to be regulated to ensure adequacy.

  • jmtabb

    I’m just waiting for the day when airlines start charging for use of the lavs, and everyone starts offering the same kinds of explanations here why a fee to use the lavatory is just fine:

    1. “You can use the restrooms at home before you leave”
    2. “There are restrooms in the airport that you can use before you board”
    3. “You can bring on board your own personal waste disposal system (I’ll leave to the imagination what those options are)”
    4. “Other places already charge for use of lavatories, especially public restrooms overseas, so this isn’t completely new”
    5. “No-one has a god given right to use the toilet every 1 (or 2, or 3) hours”
    6. “There are restrooms in the arrival airport that you can use once you deplane”

    I guess I’m an old fashioned fuddy duddy. I think you should be able to buy a ticket and get a seat assignment. I think that you should get one checked bag for free, and there should be strict enforcement of carry-on quantities and sizes. I think small children should not be assigned seats without one parent next to them. And I think if the FAA requires the people sitting in the exit rows to be qualified to assist the FA, then the airlines shouldn’t be letting just anyone sit there.

    Give those seats away as a benefit for “known” frequent fliers who meet the criteria. Give the check in desk the flexibility to offer those seats to those they think appropriate. But don’t sell them for a quick buck.

  • RetiredNavyphotog

    On a slightly different note about the crash at SFO – did you see the photos where the passengers had their suitcases with them at the crash site?
    Oh my honey, grab our suitcase then grab the baby!

  • Michael__K

    Re: 1 — If the airline is going to refund the passenger’s seating fee, then doesn’t that imply that the crew member needs to determine if a fee was paid and, if so, make some sort of notation to authorize a refund? I suppose one could design a rigorous “Chinese wall” process where the crew member has to document all post-boarding seat changes no matter what, and then someone else (not a crew member) determines whether a refund is due. I’m skeptical that a carrier would institute such a process unless it was mandated.

    Re: 2 — True, there is an opportunity cost to accommodating the passengers on a later flight. But I don’t believe the fare is generally refunded.

    Re: 3 — I see lots of anecdotal examples in the comments where crews (apparently) overlooked passengers that probably shouldn’t have been in the emergency row. Unless the passenger is literally underage or incapacitated, I suppose it can always be defended as a subjective decision. How often (if ever) have crew members been fined for this?

  • Bill___A

    It isn’t about fees.
    Many airline employees have stopped paying attention to what they are doing.
    They used to announce that seat backs needed to be raised, tray tables put up, electronic devices turned off – and then someone would walk up and down the aisles and check them.
    Now, often, you will see them walk up and down the aisles, and they might as well have their eyes closed. How else can you explain the flight attendants walking by someone with their seat reclined when it is supposed to be up – a total of FOUR times and not even noticing it (Yes, I am talking about YOU – UNITED). A couple of flights later, two separate flight attendants checked and do nothing, one passenger is sleeping with his head on the tray table in front of him while the plane lands. At touchdown, he notices, sits up and grins (Yes, UNITED – YOU AGAIN).
    Everything isn’t about fees. It is about paying attention to what you are doing and noticing things. And this seems to have taken a back seat lately.

  • LFH0

    I think you’re largely on point with respect to most consumers treating air travel as a commodity. Some might distinguish carriers based on where they have frequent flyer credits, and some might distinguish carriers based on really bad service. But otherwise, I think the overriding issue is “what’s the cheapest” and an air carrier with a fare $5 less than the others will prevail.

    Midwest Airlines was an interesting case study. For the most part, during the majority of its life the carrier did not participate in the race to the bottom. It offered a quality service at a fair price. But it never really won over those people looking for the cheapest fare, and its good quality service did not really match the first class service offered by other carriers. I liked the carrier because I could get good service at a price I could afford. But I think that in the end the carrier got lost in the middle.

  • zanna899

    As a frequent flyer, I’m a regular in the exit row. I am physically fit, willing and able to perform the duties required if called upon. However, I’m often seated (in the exit row) next to a morbidly obese person who could not fit through the window exit. I have never seen a FA ask them to move, likely for fear of being policically incorrect. They check the size of your carry on luggage to see if it fits… why not apply the same standard? It is a safety issue.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    1. Nope. I dont know enough about back end procedure to hazard a guess, but there are many examples where premium folks get down grades or are due refunds post flight. Seems to work easily enough.

    2. I mean, off completely, as in take a different carrier.

    3. Who can say. The fine is as much deterrent as punitive.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Exactly. And that’s the problem with mandating uniformity. The market has spoken and Midwest’s model didn’t cut it. Unfortunately.

  • EdB

    Re: 1 — If the airline is going to refund the passenger’s seating fee, then doesn’t that imply that the crew member needs to determine if a fee was paid and, if so, make some sort of notation to authorize a refund?

    All the FA needs to do is notify the gate agent of the passenger’s name and original seat assignment was moved. That information can be forwarded to the back office to determine if a fee was paid and if so, that it needs to be refunded.

  • Michael__K

    What makes you think they automatically notify anyone (unless perhaps the passenger complains about the fee they paid…)?

  • EdB

    In response to your statement, this was just an example of show how *IF* the airline was going to refund the passenger’s seating fee, then it *DOESN’T* imply the crew member needs to determine if a fee was paid.

  • Michael__K

    You are referring to down-grades that occur pre-boarding, no? In a print-your-own-boarding pass world, people’s fitness to sit in the emergency exit row is generally evaluated post-boarding.

  • Michael__K

    I already acknowledged that it’s solvable *IF* the crew member is required to document all post-boarding seat changes no matter what. And I’d welcome FA’s to chime in, but I’m skeptical that’s the case and I’m skeptical that would be welcomed.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    No. I was referring to post boarding. For example a large person buying two seats getting a refund of the second seat because the plane wasn’t full.

  • Michael__K

    They know that before the door closes and before the safety announcements. And they know the passenger paid extra for 2 seats.

  • Chester P. Chucklebutt

    A situation such as yours, arising after the purchase of the ticket, should certainly be entitled to a refund. I was thinking more of circumstances that did/could not change between purchase and flight.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Not exactly. The flight might have multiple legs. The refund option doesn’t kick in until all segments have been flown. Segment 1 might be fine, but segment 2 might have irregular opps and become full.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Where I’m lost is what would constitute gaming the system?

  • Michael__K

    Does any airline other than Southwest issue such refunds reliably as a matter of policy? I’m not so sure according to this:

    Regardless, it’s still a different scenario than a post-boarding seat switch because the latter is invisible to ground staff unless the FA reports it while the former isn’t.

  • Nancy Nally

    It is sometimes difficult to do many of those things you suggest while traveling.

    For instance, one of my recent trips I was departing Jacksonville, FL and connecting through ATL to the west coast. I ate breakfast at the airport before boarding my flight in JAX. My flight in ATL was scheduled to depart at around noon, so I planned to either grab food on my way through the airport or buy food on board my LAX flight. It didn’t work out that way.

    My JAX flight ended up delayed due to weather. I wound up only making my connection because it was held for me and several others who were also making the same connection. We sprinted as a pack through the ATL airport, changing concourses and arriving at the new gate 10 minutes after we stepped off the previous flight. The doors closed behind us as soon as we boarded.

    So now it’s lunchtime and I’m starving, having not eaten since breakfast, and trapped on a 5 hour flight. Finally the flight attendants came around for service – only to inform me that they had run out of food while serving first class due to a problem with catering in ATL.

    When I expressed my displeasure about the situation to the flight attendant, she snottily informed me I should have eaten in ATL because “we made an announcement at the gate about the catering situation.” I had to explain to her that I was at 30,000 feet on another flight when that announcement was made and that I was in the ATL terminal for all of 10 minutes between flights because I was one of the late arriving passengers. She was a bit more apologetic then – but I still went hungry for the next 5 hours.

    Food service isn’t optional! Traveling is insane enough without being able to do something basic like eat.

  • Chasmosaur

    Oh please, airlines have been allowing this for years. The exit row has been a perk for a long time, and safety seems to be secondary (at least in my experience – if someone has seen different than this, I’d love to hear about it).

    A decade ago – before my hip injuries worsened and when I was still quite strong and totally capable of exit-row duties – I would get exit row seats. On one flight, a “little old lady” (or LOL, as that used to stand for) sat next to me in the exit row. I would say she maybe weighed 95 lbs soaking wet – very small, very frail, very slow up the aisle, but independent and ambulatory. As this was when my flying anxiety was still a relatively new thing for me, I was not amused when she took the window seat. (A bad flight in my 20’s – with a horrendous take off and landing, and a not great middle either – made me very aware you cannot pull a plane over if something is wrong.)

    The FA came by and did the routine asking of the question – do you feel you could lift the 50 lb door in an emergency? The LOL said “Well, I guess I’d do my best.” I locked eyes with the FA, expecting her to force a change in her seating. Especially since on other flights, I had been made to explicitly say “Yes” if I had just nodded assent. Instead, the FA just shrugged and let her stay.

    During the flight, my seat mate had difficulty opening the shade (yeah, they can stick, but it’s not that hard to dislodge them), and using the in-armrest tray table. If there had been a problem I’m pretty sure I would have had to lift her out of the way before I could have accessed the exit row door.

    These days, if I want leg room, I book ahead and get first class. (The calculus of physical therapy vs too-tight economy seating actually makes it the reasonable financial choice, considering how vital leg room is to my current musculoskeletal issues.) It would never, EVER occur to me to book an exit-row seat, since I’m not 100% sure I could lift a door.

    Now, can I lift 50 lbs? Yep. It ain’t easy, but I can do it. I’m sure adrenaline would make it easier. But in good conscience, I’m not going to risk a plane load of people on my potential adrenaline levels.

  • Chasmosaur

    I posted a story above: a decade ago a frail little old lady who had problems lifting the window shade and using the in-arm tray was allowed to say “I guess I’d do my best” to answer the question in #1. She sat in the window seat and did for the whole flight.

  • SoBeSparky

    You forgot to answer the question, “What is cruel and unusual about this?” This whole discourse borders on the absurd when we have citizens tortured, retarded people killed by injection, and citizens targeted by secret agencies for foul play, and we are concerned the fact the captive airplane audience must buy food and beverage is cruel and unusual. Huh???

  • SoBeSparky

    And this proves what? Anecdotes of violations of laws, rules and regulations are a dime a dozen. I fly over 100,000 miles a year, real miles in the seat, and have yet to hear or see these things about the exit row. Perhaps you should change airlines or write the FAA and do your duty as a good citizen when you see these anecdotal violations.

  • Chasmosaur

    Wow – kinda aggressive response.

    1) If you think my anecdote doesn’t prove anything, then why do you think reporting it to the FAA would change anything? This was in the days before everyone had a camera phone – it would be pure he-said/she-said (or more likely, she-said/she-said, since it would have come down to me and the female FA), and who were they more likely to believe? A passenger easily described as “disgruntled” or “upset” or “aggressive” by the flight crew or the airline professionals?

    2) If you haven’t heard or seen these things, then you’re lucky. Mostly I’ve seen really awesome FA’s who tolerate a boatload of shit – occasionally I get a bad one, but with increasingly hostile skies, I kinda can’t blame them.

    My husband generally flew over 50,000 miles per year for the past 8 (new job, no travel), I flew about 20,000 for a while with my family and job. I don’t know if my husband ever saw exit-row seating issues, but I did. That you flew more often than either my husband or myself doesn’t change the fact I once saw this with my own eyes. You can choose to believe me or not, but it did happen.

    3) It was an NW flight, so, you know, moot point now. And since I live in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, to get the places I generally go, I can fly Delta, or I can fly Delta, or I can fly US Air (I think it’s a whole 2 flights daily to a large east coast city), or I can fly Delta, or I can fly United (pretty much always connecting through ORD), or I can fly Delta, or I can fly SW (with everything connecting through MDW and flying out of the crappier Humphrey terminal), or I can fly Delta, or I can fly Delta. Or I can fly Delta. Those are pretty much my options.

    The fact is, the exit-row seat has become a perq because of the leg room. It shouldn’t be, as that leg room is there so people can get out of the window exit. Airlines *should* remember that, and not monetize it, or allow FA’s to accept vague answers under any circumstances.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Two thoughts
    All major airlines have policies for persons of size and means of issueing refunds. Southwest merely gets the biggest press because they have been vocal about this issue since the 90s.

    As far as Southwest goes, my understanding is that its up to the passenger to self report. How and when its verified I do not know. The problem is that neither of us know enough about the back end processes to speak intelligently about what is required. We can make guesses but what good is that?

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    It didn’t cost me more when I flew my computer guy out from Vegas, twice. It was a substantial savings over all alternatives.

  • Guest

    All major airlines have policies for persons of size and means of issueing refunds

    What makes you think so? Quoting from the link I posted:

    US Airways doesn’t provide specific guidelines to passengers, but claims to deal with this issue on a case-by-case basis

    Other than Southwest, I don’t see any airlines with written policies about refunds either.

    I don’t need to know anything about back end processes to understand that personnel who are not on the plane don’t know what happens on the plane unless people on the plane tell them.

    Let’s take a step back, because I’m not quite sure what it is we’re fundamentally disagreeing about in the big picture. I readily acknowledge that with the right management, corporate culture, training, protocols, and oversight, charging for emergency exit seats is a non-issue. However, given what we know about airlines like Spirit, and given the various anecdotal observations cited throughout the comments, do you not agree that some non-zero level of cynicism and skepticism is justified?

  • Michael__K

    “All major airlines have policies for persons of size and means of issueing refunds”

    What makes you think so? Quoting from the link I posted:

    US Airways doesn’t provide specific guidelines to passengers, but claims to deal with this issue on a case-by-case basis

    Other than Southwest, I don’t see any airlines with written policies about refunds either.

    I don’t need to know anything about back end processes to understand
    that personnel who are not on the plane don’t know what happens on the
    plane unless people on the plane tell them.

    Let’s take a step back, because I’m not quite sure what it is we’re
    fundamentally disagreeing about in the big picture. I readily
    acknowledge that with the right management, corporate culture, training,
    protocols, and oversight, charging for emergency exit seats is a
    non-issue. However, given what we know about airlines like Spirit, and
    given the various anecdotal observations cited throughout the comments,
    do you not agree that some non-zero level of cynicism and skepticism is

  • Joshua

    Airlines should consider having a demonstration 50-pound door in the gate area. If an exit row passenger is unable to lift the demonstration door at the gate, they should be reassigned to a non-exit row (and given a refund of any fee they may have paid to be in the exit row).

  • BMG4ME

    I can’t believe that they would knowingly allow her to buy the exit row knowing that she is not capable of acting in the right capacity. Furthermore, although I personally would do everything I can to avoid Spirit and thus I can’t test this hypothesis, I would imagine that, like other airlines, in order to buy or choose the exit row seat, you have to certify that you are willing and able to perform the necessary duties. Thus she either was a lot stronger than she looked, or she lied when she chose the seat. If the latter, liars show up everywhere and there is not much you can do about people that just don’t want to tell the truth. That’s not the airline’s fault – and anyway before the exit row became a perk she would have probably have been able to have sat there without having to certify so if anything the airlines have made it less likely that the wrong person would sit there.

  • Crissy

    I think in the case of the exit row both parties are to blame. If you know you can’t do it and you accept it, then yes you are responsible. But if you obviously can’t do the duties and a FA or gate agent doesn’t move you, then they hold responsibility to. None of that means much though if I’m dead on the plane because they didn’t open the door…

  • Charlie Tetro

    I was on a night flight
    Saturday, July 20th on Spirit Airlines Flight 763 to Las Vegas, NV.
    Almost everyone on the plane was asleep or trying to sleep, including
    myself. When I wake up, I find that my eye glasses are stolen. I was
    sitting in an aisle seat and placed them hanging on the netted pocket in
    front of me. I reported the theft to one of the airline attendants and
    another came back to me with the nerve to tell me that “one of our staff
    members tells me you never came on the plane with any glasses on”. This
    is just not true, I cannot see 2 feet in front of me without my

    Here is where it gets interesting. The next day I went
    to Lens Crafters in Las Vegas to get a new pair of glasses. I tell my
    story to one of the employees and she tells me they had a customer come
    in 2 days earlier with the same story; a
    night flight to Vegas on Spirit Airlines and her eye glasses stolen.

    makes me think, without a doubt, that one of the airline attendants
    stole my glasses. What nerve! The glasses alone put me $400 dollars in
    the hole along with the cost of a $45 dollar cab ride, $65 dollar hotel
    room and a days worth of headaches with buses, walking, and trying to
    find a place on Sunday that has an optometrist to prescribe new eye

    Complaining to Spirit Airlines will likely not solve
    anything so the least that I can do is to let others be aware that theft
    can and will happen on a flight. I never would have imagined that
    someone would steal prescription eye glasses on a flight. Never again
    Spirit Airlines.

  • stephen_nyc

    Sometimes typos really have me laughing. Microbreweries for bear. Good one.

  • Mark Carolla

    Christopher – The passenger in advanced youth was obviously an issue that should be reported to the FAA. As for the safety issue of unsafe space in so-called economy class – as long as flying is basically the only choice between driving or thin rail or bus travel and is the airborne national bus company where the public demands the lowest price; and the airlines offer a “low” price by charging extra to the “suckers born every minute” (we the public) as PT Barnum put it for baggage, medically survivable seating, food, water and so on – the airlines will continue to not offer comfortable flying to the Middle Class (partially because as a NY Times editorial on this subject put it, there is no Middle Class left as the Baby Boomers knew it in the US.)