While a recent Air Canada announcement about a change to its international economy advance seat assignment policy didn’t make the news it’s worth reviewing and including in the larger picture of airline ancillary fees as it could cost you the next time you fly.
For a decade Air Canada and its airline competitors have charged for both checked baggage and advance seat assignment at the lowest economy fare levels for flights within Canada and to the United States but the 28th March 2017 announcement euphemistically headlined “Chose your seat among the clouds” has extended these seat assignment fees to Air Canada economy fares for flights to certain international destinations.
The change in the advance seat assignment policy won’t affect all Air Canada international routes but only to select destinations, most of which are flown by Air Canada rouge, the basic economy leisure airline subsidiary founded in 2012 to compete head-on with discount and charter airlines:
As is noted in the fine print the quoted seat assignment fees are one-way so could be as high as $60 per person roundtrip which may represent as much as 8 percent of the ticket base fare. As airfares haven’t dropped by a corresponding amount this new seat fee is a cost that wasn’t there months ago making travel on Air Canada a little bit more expensive than it was.
Passengers may of course select a seat without charge at time of online check-in 24-hours prior to flight time or while checking in at the airport on the day of departure but must take the leftover seats that haven’t been assigned in advance and may see them stuck in a back row middle seat outside the lavatory on a 8 – 9 hour long-haul flight which speaking from personal experience isn’t a pleasant place to be for an extended period of time. Not having an advance seat assignment also makes a passenger more likely to be bumped in cases when the aircraft is overbooked especially if they don’t check-in online and arrive at the airport close to departure time.
While Air Canada has only imposed the economy advance seat assignment fee for “select international destinations” for now it won’t come as much of a surprise when the airline extends the policy to all international routes in a year or two.
The revenue generated from these airline ancillary fees has become a big chunk of airline revenue in recent years in large part because unlike airfares which are still subject to regulations ancillary fees are not regulated and so can be adjusted or increased at will. According to this article while Air Canada doesn’t specify a dollar figure it has disclosed its ancillary revenue jumped 16% from 2014 – 2015 alone. In the U.S. airlines squeezed out $26 billion in ancillary fees in 2015, more than triple the amount recorded in 2008. The U.S. Congress has held hearings in recent weeks on an proposed bill that would crack down on airline fees by established limits to their levels which can be wildly disproportionate to both the amount of the base airfare and the actual cost of providing the services.
Clearly these fees are here to stay and many, including the author of this Globe & Mail article, argue that having low fares and allowing individuals to choose from an à la carte menu of paid services is a better option that having high fares but many included benefits and services some passengers may not want or need. While I see the advantage of having personal choice it only works well for consumers who understand all the options available to them and appreciate the added costs and how their decisions could impact their travel. There is much less transparency under the present pick-a-perk arrangement than in bygone days when an airfare included everything from seat assignment to in-flight meals and travellers knew what to expect as increasingly in recent days news stories have gone viral about outraged passengers bumped from their dream flight or who resent hundred of dollars of fees to assign seats and/or check bags so it seems some flyers aren’t well informed about what fees exist and when they should be paid.
To be fair, airlines do make the information regarding additional seat assignment or checked bag fees readily available in the online booking process but inevitably these details are hidden behind hyperlinks few consumers ever open.
While I have a built-in bias working in the travel industry, the do-it-yourself approach to booking travel can have it’s pitfalls if the myriad of options are unexplored so having a travel consultant explain the costs in context can make for smoother travel. We all value our holidays so investing a little time and sometimes a small booking fee to ensure things go as planned can pay big dividends while travelling.