Outraged over a spike in airfare for pre-booking an aisle seat, Consumer Advocate Ralph Nader talks with Msnbc.com's Dara Brown about his ordeal and what consumers can do to protect their pockets.
How much would you pay to be sure you wouldn’t get stuck in a middle seat on a 3-hour flight? Would you pay $2,000? You know airline fees have been a little crazy lately, but this sounds pretty extreme.
Famed consumer advocate Ralph Nader says American Airlines tried to charge him nearly $2,000 extra recently to get an aisle seat for an upcoming flight.
American Airlines says there is no such thing as $2,000 aisle seat fee. But Nader was informed , repeatedly, that the only way he could be sure he’d be able to get an aisle seat to accommodate his large 6-foot, 4-inch frame on an upcoming Hartford, Conn., to Dallas-Ft. Worth flight was to buy a different ticket than the $750 ticket he already had -- one that would cost him $2,680, or almost $2,000 more.
"I knew that it might be $50 more for aisle seats. But they said, 'Oh no. The only choice is pay $2,680 or be an elite traveler,’" Nader said. "It's extortion. They are charging you for knee lengths."
To be clear, American Airlines hasn't upped its aisle seat fee to $2,000. Instead, when Nader's travel agent Bill Magner asked for an aisle seat, he was told there were no aisle seats left. When Magner looked at the seating chart of the plane and saw a dozen empty aisle seats, the American Airlines agent clarified by saying that all aisle seats available for seat assignments to non “Preferred” economy class ticket holders were gone. But if Nader were willing to buy pay a full-fare, refundable ticket – for $2,680.40 -- he could get a guaranteed aisle seat .
"Astonishing," said Magner, who has booked airline seats for Nader for 30 years. "When I called American Airlines, after I finally got them on the phone, they were absolutely no help."
But the airline said it's got a perfectly sensible explanation, and it's merely doing what nearly every airline does.
"The seats that were eligible to book ahead of time (by non-preferred customers) were already chosen," said Tim Smith, an American Airlines spokesman. In other words, all the other aisle and window empty seats were being reserved for last-minute business frequent fliers, “preferred” customers or those who are willing to pay higher fares. "The point of this exercise is to make sure our most loyal customers have first run at those seats."
This "the flight's not full, but it's full for you," confusion should feel familiar to folks who've ever tried to book a free trip with airline miles on a popular route. Even if a flight is relatively empty, an airline can say that there are no seats left for non-paying miles travelers. Now that seat assignments have become a source of revenue, airlines are beginning to apply the same logic elsewhere, with some awkward results.
Smith assured us that the airline isn't trying to sell consumers $2,000 seat upgrades -- but in fact, as Nader sat trying to book his Feb. 11th flight on Feb. 1, that was the only option available to him.
Airlines get away with creating artificial seat scarcity when they have a monopoly on certain routes. American is the only airline offering a non-stop from Hartford to Dallas-Ft. Worth, and Nader doesn't have a flexibility in his travels. So he, like so many other travelers, was stuck.
"They are mopping up when they have control of the routes. It's really amazing," Nader said. ""These are rampaging, crazed corporations. The computer tells them there is no competition and they pull back all the aisle seats looking for money."
It's unclear how many seats are put on hold for last-minute preferred travelers -- Smith said the number varies with every flight based on a complex calculation, though "it's safe to say that the first 5, 6, or 7 rows are saved for preferred." And that means it’s unclear how many aisle or window seats are available for reserve by economy-class travelers on the lowest rung an airline’s frequent flier ladder.
But don't blame Nader for thinking that a conspiracy is in the works: that the number of aisle seats available to economy travelers is precisely one fewer than they might want at the time of booking.
"They are setting a condition and then backing off and pulling back the seats whenever they want," he said.
Nader did have the option to wait until the day of his flight, when those held-back seats would be released, and hope there would be an empty aisle seat. But of course, even when paying $750, there would be no guarantee.
RED TAPE WRESTLING TIPS
Exceptions do happen. And on Saturday, after calls to the airline's executive offices and to msnbc.com, Nader was able to persuade the airline to place him in an aisle seat for his original $750 fare.
You, on the other hand, have only limited options to make sure you don't get stuck in a middle seat between passengers named "Rock" and "Hard Place." Gaining preferred status on an airline and sticking to it is really the "best" of your bad options. Booking early, before those "available" non-preferred seats fill up, can help. Only choosing destinations where there's healthy competition will help, but megamergers like the recently completed Continental-United marriage are making those harder to find.
But really, the only way to avoid such Draconian airline fees is to take the train.