Spirit to charge for seat assignments

Spirit Airlines now charges its passengers for online seat selection as part of a new policy that took effect May 30. Customers have to fork over $5 for a middle seat, $10 for an aisle, and $15 for a window. Now, you might not believe me if you look for this information on Spirit's site, because it doesn't appear to be there at press time (at least not in the Advance Seat Assignments section), but believe me, it's true. Online seat selection is not required, and you can wait until you get to the airport, where you'll be assigned a seat. Keep in mind that you won't have any choice at that point, and may be separated from your party or stuck next to the bathroom.

Spirit touted this move as a way to generate revenue without raising fares, and while that's true, it's also another example of an airline charging for something that used to be free. For many of us, the seat we sit in only marginally improves the flying experience, but some flyers have a strong preference for one over the other (OK—no one really likes the middle seat). To those who really care, $10 or $15 may not seem like a lot to get their seat of choice, but it does represent one more financial hurdle to leap. And to make matters worse, paying this extra charge doesn't protect you from losing your seat if the is plane overbooked. Apparently an extra $15 for a window seat doesn't truly guarantee you a view, because you can still get bumped.

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As I said when Spirit raised its baggage fee earlier this week, the airline is running a strictly a la carte airline operation. Flying Spirit is very much like buying a car: You can purchase the bare-bones base model—basically four wheels and an engine—but you'll have to pay extra if you want leather seats or more air bags.

So, like the baggage fee, this new charge is in line with the a la carte business model, in which Spirit basically flies you from point A to point B and charges you for everything else. That doesn't mean you have to like it, though, and little things like not protecting fee-paying passengers from overbooking just make the whole operation seem cheap.

But like it or not, Spirit is what it is—air travel that's as inexpensive as you want it to be.

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