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Air Canada suspends new seat selection fee two days after rollout

MONTREAL — Air Canada has pressed pause on a new seat selection fee just two days after it implemented the policy, but not before drawing the ire of some travellers online.
Air Canada is pressing pause on a new seat selection fee after social media backlash against the days-old policy. Airline seats are seen during a flight from Vancouver to Calgary on Tuesday, June 9, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

MONTREAL — Air Canada has pressed pause on a new seat selection fee just two days after it implemented the policy, but not before drawing the ire of some travellers online.

For years, Air Canada customers with economy fares have been able to change the seat automatically assigned to them at check-in, free of charge.

However, travel agents received notice from the company less than two weeks ago that lower-tier passengers who had not purchased a seat in advance would have to pay a fee if they wanted to change their automatically designated spot — online or in person — before boarding,starting April 24.

Travellers took to social media to protest the move, with some saying they were caught off guard and given no heads-up beforehand by Air Canada.

"I think it is insane that airlines are charging every single dime, as they first started with baggage and now seats," said Tommy Chan in an email. "What's next?"

Air Canada said that two days after implementing the fees, which can top $50, it suspended the policy. But it doesn't plan to cancel it altogether. 

"With the limited time the amended policy was in place there was very little customer feedback. Instead the decision to pause was based on our own operational considerations," said spokesman Peter Fitzpatrick in an email.

"The pause will let us better support our employees so as to ensure a smooth rollout in the future, which will ultimately benefit of our customers."

The company will announce "next steps ... at the appropriate time," he added.

The temporarily paused policy marks the latest example of airlines' growing reliance on so-called ancillary fees for formerly bundled services ranging from checked bags to onboard snacks and Wi-Fi access.

Air Canada took in nearly US$2 billion in so-called ancillary revenue in 2022, up by nearly 50 per cent from five years earlier, according to airline consulting firm IdeaWorksCompany. The category's share of total revenue for the company grew to more than 15 per cent from below 11 per cent in the same five-year period.

WestJet this month introduced a new service tier, "Extended Comfort," where economy-class passengers can pay for extra legroom, early access to overhead bins — coveted real estate due to checked baggage costs — and a free alcoholic drink.

Most airlines charge customers with lower-tier tickets a fee to select their seats in advance. But Air Canada's forthcoming fee applies to passengers with a "basic" or "standard" economy fare who opt to change the seats they were assigned at check-in, not long before their plane departs. Other airlines such as budget carriers Spirit Airlines and Flair Airlines have similar policies.

United Airlines already has a fee for basic economy customers who want to select a seat during check-in. If they opt out, they aren't assigned a seat until they reach the gate. 

"Gate assignments would mean that if the flight is oversold, these people are the most likely to be denied boarding. At least (Air Canada is) not doing that," Richard Vanderlubbe, who heads Hamilton-based travel agency

"I do understand the rationale for the policy. Full-service airlines are competing with low-cost carriers on price with basic fares."

Those who buy one of the higher-tier tickets enjoy complimentary seat selection well ahead of time as part of the purchase process, albeit a pricier one.

Air Canada said all customers travelling with children will be assigned seats together for free.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 30, 2024.

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Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press