British Airways has adopted another idea from the no-frills airlines, charging passengers for pre-assigned seating, with the prized emergency-exit rows in economy now carrying a £50 premium.
The carrier says it is offering the chance to reserve specific seats as an added benefit in response to customer demand. A spokeswoman said it was "to give customers more control over their seating options". But those who decide not to pay could be more likely to find themselves in the reviled middle seat or separated from their travelling companion.
From 7 October, BA passengers will be able to go online up to almost a year before departure and choose window or aisle seats; emergency-exit seats will go on sale 10 days before the flight.
The airline's Gold and Silver frequent fliers already enjoy the privilege of early seat-selection and will still be able to do so without charge. But for other travellers, the price of making certain of a particular place will range from £10 per person, per flight for domestic and European departures, and up to £60 for long-haul business class. A couple travelling in World Traveller Plus would pay a total of £80 return for the certainty of sitting together.
"We will continue to offer customers the option to pre-allocate their seats for free in the 24 hours before departure," said a BA spokeswoman. "But customers frequently request specific seats further in advance. This will allow them to do that."
Charging for assigned seating is among a range of measures the airline is introducing to staunch its losses. All airlines are suffering from the economic downturn, with British Airways losing more than £1m a day according to its latest figures. In the last financial year, it lost £401m.
For years, BA has prided itself on offering a radically more comfortable product than its budget rivals, with a generous baggage allowance and complimentary catering. The airline has just cut back meals on some shorter flights, and – in common with many other carriers – is reducing its free baggage allowances on transatlantic flights.
Predictably, BA's rivals queued up to deride the new charges: easyJet's UK commercial manager, Paul Simmons, said: "Same old BA, attempting to replicate low-cost principles, but charging premium rates. Still trying and still failing to be a low-fares airline."
His airline has no assigned seating, but sells "speedy boarding", allowing passengers to be in the first wave entering the aircraft, for £4.50 to £8 per flight. Ryanair sells up to 90 "priority boarding" places, representing nearly half the aircraft's capacity, for £3 each.
At present, about 45 per cent of British Airways passengers check in online and therefore arrive at the airport with an assigned seat. A further 35 per cent use a kiosk at the airport to select a seat, with the remaining 20 per cent using a traditional check-in desk.
Behind the scenes, the airline micro-manages seating on every flight, ensuring families are able to sit together. This practice will continue, so BA passengers travelling with children need not pay extra for assigned seating unless they want specific seats.