Mint Explainer: Why airlines are under fire over paid seats | Mint

Mint Explainer: Why airlines are under fire over paid seats

The regulator also allows airlines to offer zero-baggage fares, but airlines have so far not offered this at large because of stiff competition and wafer-thin margins
The regulator also allows airlines to offer zero-baggage fares, but airlines have so far not offered this at large because of stiff competition and wafer-thin margins

Summary

  • The civil aviation regulator allows airlines to charge separately for things like paid seats, meals and other ‘unbundled services’, but passengers remain up in arms about these practices, the latest flare-up on social media shows

New Delhi: As the debate around paid airline seats heats up on social media, Mint explains the regulations around the issue and the best way to bag a free seat when you fly next.

The issue

When you buy a flight ticket and opt for a paid seat while booking or during check-in, that service is allowed under ‘unbundling of services.’ This provision is governed by Air Transport Circular 01 of 2021 from the Directorate General of Civil Aviation, India's civil-aviation regulator.

The concept of unbundling of services took shape in 2013, when the regulator allowed airlines to charge a pre-selection fee for 25% of seats on an aircraft. This was expanded in 2015, when the airlines were allowed to offer pre-selection for all seats.

“Considering the fact that unbundling of services and changes thereto has the potential to make basic fare more affordable and provides consumer an option of paying for the services which he/she wishes to avail, it has been decided by the government to allow following services to be unbundled and charged separately on opt-in basis," the government stated in its latest circular on the matter.

These services include preferential seating, meals, snacks and beverages (except drinking water), lounge access, sports equipment charge, musical instrument carriage, and a fee for special declaration of valuable baggage. In fact, the regulator also allows airlines to offer zero-baggage fares, but Indian airlines have so far not offered this at large because of stiff competition and wafer-thin margins.

The opposition

The government may have allowed airlines to charge a fee for selecting a seat beforehand, but this has met with opposition from passenger associations, parliamentary committees, and individual passengers time and again. In 2015 the Air Passengers’ Association of India contested the concept of paid seats on the grounds that it would only increase airfares. In March 2022 a Parliamentary committee on transport, tourism, and culture had termed the practice arbitrary and unjustifiable.

Now, there is a backlash on social media platforms at a time when airfares are already high on account of the festive season.

A back-of-the-envelope calculation shows that a low-cost carrier can earn an additional 60,000-70,000 per flight, considering they charge 150-400 for window seats, aisle seats, and even most middle seats. Seats with extra legroom (at the front and in the exit rows) cost 800-1,500.

How to guarantee yourself a free seat

All airlines have a different approach to offering free and paid seats. The number of free and paid available typically changes dynamically, depending on the time of booking, the gap between the booking date and travel date, current demand for that flight, and other factors.

“There have been instances when a passenger has booked a ticket and has been allotted a free aisle seat. But, when the passenger checks in, they are given an aisle at the back of the aircraft, not the middle. This may have happened because the airline offered that seat for a premium to another passenger, who ended up paying for it," a travel agent said.

The first window to bag an assured free seat is when booking a flight. In case a free seat is unavailable, it's best not to select any seat when booking and to do so when doing a web check-in 48 hours to 60 minutes before departure. This way you will automatically be assigned a free seat on the flight. However, it won't be of your choosing, so this may not be the best option if you're travelling in a large group and want to be seated together.

Can the government intervene?

So far, the civil aviation ministry and its bodies have maintained at several forums that Indian civil aviation sector is a de-regulated market and that the government does not intervene on prices of services, which consumers are free to choose and that airlines declare transparently in advance.

“Though scheduled airlines are free to fix charges and fees for the unbundled services, DGCA has the right to intervene and stop scheduled airlines from charging for specific unbundled service if principles like transparency, opt-in, and non-discrimination are found to be violated by the airlines," the 2021 DGCA circular reads.

Meanwhile, the consumer affairs ministry has summoned all Indian airlines on 4 November to discuss a range of issues, including delayed refunds and deficiencies in services. The ministry has also received several complainants that airlines trick passengers into choosing paid seats despite promising free web check-in.

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