Northwest's Prime Seats Sell, But Some Fliers Don't Buy In

An extra $15 to buy an aisle seat is a notion some passengers are not taking sitting down.
An extra $15 to buy an aisle seat is a notion some passengers are not taking sitting down. (By Tim Boyle - Getty Images)
By Keith L. Alexander
Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Just one week after Northwest Airlines set off a major customer-service uproar by unveiling a new $15 fee for aisle and exit-row seats, the airline says the response from customers has been better than anticipated.

Northwest spokesman Kurt Ebenhoch said demand for the seats was growing and after one week, sales are "running ahead of expectations." He declined to offer specifics on how many seats were sold.

Whether Northwest -- which is in bankruptcy protection -- makes the test program permanent, Ebenhoch says, depends on customer response. "We're listening to their feedback," he said.

The airline's newest revenue-enhancer is primarily aimed at passengers who prefer comfort over price. And although Northwest says it is pleased with the response thus far, some of those passengers -- business travelers, that is -- continue to voice their ire through other channels.

Some frequent fliers said they would rather see Northwest raise all ticket prices by $5 or $10, rather than charge a fee for a coach seat. "I am totally for raising fares a few bucks per passenger. Instead, we're getting fee'd to death," said Red Cross manager Michael Fazzino, a top Northwest frequent flier who racks up about 70,000 miles a year.

Dupont Circle frequent flier Paul Cadario said Northwest's decision could cost the airline future customers. "At a time when the planes are full and frequent fliers are already feeling a little abused, this is not the time to introduce something stupid like this," Cadario said.

Reston auditor Michael Graves has already calculated his strategy to land one of those aisle or exit seats and avoid the fee. Graves said he would book a regular seat next to the premium one, and once the aircraft door has shut and the seat remains available, he'll move. "This is one of the few things that would make me instantly drop Northwest as a carrier of choice," Graves said.

The anger stems from the fact that Northwest has taken what was once free and added a price to it without enhancing the product, since the seats remain in the coach cabin. America West faced a smaller-scale backlash in 2003 when it was the first airline to introduce buy-on-board meals. But at that time, most carriers had already stopped offering meals to coach passengers, so the meals were a welcome relief to many.

Travelers still have a chance of getting an aisle or exit row seat without having to pay the fee. The airline is only selling 5 percent of the seats as part of the test. But those seats are toward the front of the coach cabin.

What could make Northwest's move even more difficult for business travelers is that many companies say they won't reimburse their employees for the fees, which could range as much as $30 to $60 on a round-trip flight if the flight has connections each way.

A survey of 30 corporate travel managers of the National Business Travel Association yesterday revealed that more than 55 percent of companies said they would not permit their employees to pay extra for the seats.

Travel manager Marty Wahoske, spokesman for the North Central Business Travel Association, said several of his 130 corporate travel managers based in Northwest's home state of Minnesota quickly modified their travel policies to alert their employees that they would not be reimbursed for the fees if they purchase the seats.

Still, Wahoske -- who says Northwest consulted him about the fee idea a few months prior to rolling out the test -- said the fees would benefit those travelers who book a flight at the last minute and want to avoid getting stuck in the middle seat in the back of a plane.

Northwest insists its offer matches -- or is even better than -- similar moves by other carriers. Ebenhoch cited United Airlines, which charges a fee for a seat in its Economy Plus cabin. But United spokeswoman Robin Urbanski countered that United passengers are closer to the front of the plane as part of an upgraded section that offers five extra inches of legroom. Virgin Atlantic charges its customers $75 for an exit-row seat on transatlantic flights. By contrast, Southwest Airlines has never let passengers reserve a seat on its flights.

Several frequent fliers said they feared that other airlines would follow. However, spokesmen for four of the nation's biggest carriers -- United, Continental, Delta and American -- said they had no plans to follow Northwest. US Airways spokesman Phil Gee gave the most cautious response, saying that although the airline has plans to match Northwest's move, the airline was "watching it very closely to see how successful it is."

Fliers who want to offer their thoughts on the program can contact the company at . Please send a copy of your e-mail to .

Dollar sodas nixed: As some of you may recall, BizClass first alerted readers in December that American Airlines subsidiary American Eagle planned to charge $1 for a soda as part of a test on some of its flights. American recently discontinued the test after it proved not to be as popular with travelers as the carrier had thought it might. Many of you joked at the time that the only thing left without a fee was the aircraft lavatory. Let's hope no airline executives read that column.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company