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Airlines have, over the years, become famous for adding more and more fees to what used to be "free" (or more realistically included in the fare) in the past. Additional airline fees have become so rampant that the topic has become a running joke among frequent travelers. Some jest that next they’ll be charging to use the armrest or recline a seat, but the now frequent practice of charging for seat selection before boarding is causing many passengers and advocacy groups to examine the situation seriously. 

Extra fees for extra perks

Airline passengers have gotten used to carriers charging fees for everything from a simple snack to baggage allowance. It’s literally the price you have to pay if you want to fly on most airlines in the 21st century, but customers on most airlines still assume that they’ll be able to sit with their family members when they book tickets together. 

However, charging additional fees for the privilege of selecting seats before boarding has become standard practice for many carriers, especially in the U.K. In fact, air travel industry experts now say that U.K. passengers spend upwards of 390 million pounds (approximately U.S. $550 million) per year on these fees. As a result, more passengers are finding themselves separated from their travel companions when they board a flight. There has also been an uptick in the number of complaints from passengers who say their young children have been separated from them and forced to sit with strangers on a flight. 

The issue of transparency

Most people begrudgingly accept that airlines have a right to charge people for ancillary services on a flight, but the advanced seating issue has raised questions over whether or not the airlines are acting fairly towards their customers. Specifically, some passengers and watchdog groups claim that carriers are purposefully splitting up families in order to try and pressure them into paying the advance seat selection fees.

The U.K. Civil Aviation Authority is launching a review to determine if the airlines are unfairly splitting up groups of passengers when it’s unnecessary to do so. Their goal will be to determine if the advance seat selection pricing structures currently in place are clear and transparent enough, or if there is evidence that they are deliberately trying to profit from customer confusion. Airlines U.K., a trade organization that represents registered carriers in the country, has yet to respond to the review. However, some individual carriers have made a comment. A Ryanair spokesperson said the company is ready to comply with the review, and that children who are traveling with their family members always receive complimentary advance seat selection. 

The road ahead for passengers and assigned seat fees

For now, passengers who need to sit together on flights should check with an airline representative beforehand to learn exactly what the policy is. Letting the airline know you have children who need to sit with you may help your chances of sitting together, even if you don’t pay for advance seat selection.

As for the situation in the U.S., there is currently no similar review scheduled for carriers, but some groups are calling for such an action. The U.S. Congress did pass an applicable law in 2016 called the Families Flying Together Act, aimed at mandating that airlines provide seating next to parents or guardians for children under 13. However, The FAA has yet to create regulations that would allow them to enforce the law.