The Travel Adviser: Sit on it!

Getting a good seat on the plane is becoming a costly challenge.

plane seat 88 (photo credit: )
plane seat 88
(photo credit: )
It's now official: most of the Western world is in a recession. The only silver lining is the plummeting price of crude oil. It's falling so quickly that our Arab neighbors are playing with their worry beads non-stop. The airline industry is breathing a sigh of relief. That's foolish, though, because the drop in air travel as the result of the recession will make last summer's full flights seem a wonderful fantasy. While airline fuel surcharges have beaten a hasty retreat, fares are still a whopping 18 percent up from prices a year ago. And that's the good news. The airlines are now hard into the nickels and dimes of the business. Most American airlines now charge $15 for the first checked bag when flying within the US, and $25-$50 for the second checked bag. Fortunately for its passengers, Southwest Airlines continues to permit two checked bags without any fee on all of its flights. Some of us can throw all of our necessities into a large carry-on bag and avoid these fees. What none of us can avoid, though, is where we sit. Road warriors, those brave souls who fly several times a month, are high enough up the airlines' pecking order that they can choose pretty much the best seats available. But for the less frequent traveler, getting a good seat is becoming a challenge, and like too many challenges, one that will cost you. There is, truth be told, no seat worse than the one in the middle of the aircraft. Even on short flights, you're fighting for the arm rests as passengers on both sides encroach upon your personal space. The ability to snag that exit row seat may be worth parting with some dollars. Many US airlines have already initiated seat programs for their passengers. United Airlines markets something called "Economy Plus," allowing passengers to pay more for leg room, $14 on short-haul flights and up to $25 on longer routes. Air Tran charges a $20 fee for reserving an exit row seat with more leg room. Even better, Air Tran charges $6 to reserve any seat in advance. Northwest markets its product under the grandiose title, "Coach Choice." With a menu of choices, customers can confirm reserved exit, aisle and window seats ranging from $5-$35 on domestic flights and $25-$50 on international flights. Never let it be said that Israeli companies don't try to learn from their American counterparts. El Al has decided to play the game. El Al charges $59 for an exit row seat, one way, when flying to North America, the Far East or South Africa. And $39 will get you an exit row seat to all other destinations. Of course, while the fees are a bit high, the best part is the catch. You can reserve it, but it will be confirmed only at the airport. And if you've paid in advance, no problem: El Al promises to refund you the money. Now keep in mind that El Al's top-tier frequent fliers, Gold, Platinum and Top Platinum, get first crack at these seats, so, even if you reserve your exit row seat six months in advance, the frequent flier will most probably get it ahead of you. In fact, quoting from its Web site in answer to the inquiry, "When will I know if I received the Economy Class Preferred Seat?" the response is to the point: "When checking in, a service representative for El Al passengers will let you know whether you received a preferred seat." Now we know that El Al is in a tailspin. Its marketing maven has recently announced his departure, and it is losing market share. It would be wise for it to learn from an airline such as Lufthansa. Recently celebrating 40 years of air service between Israel and Germany, it is one of the best-managed airlines in the entire world. A reader sent in a complaint that indicates the contrast. Flying in El Al business class, her preassigned seat had the unfortunate consequence of being next to two children, aged five and six. The father was sitting elsewhere, and when one of the children had a tantrum, he was powerless to stop it. The flight attendants were anxious to help and expressed regret that there was not an empty seat to which they could move her. Attempting sleep proved futile as the child's lungs and capacity to kick the seats proved remarkable. Writing to El Al upon her return, she explained in full detail what had transpired and in lieu of monetary compensation, modestly requested that a sum of frequent flier points be issued. El Al's Customer Relations, usually a shining beacon, was unhelpful, and while expressing regret, offered no compensation. In essence, she was simply told to sit on it. Sit she shall do, but not on an El Al airplane. Sometimes a small gesture yields large benefits. Mark Feldman is the CEO of Ziontours, Jerusalem. For questions and comments email him at