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In perusing the news of Southwest Airlines’ $231 million year-to-date loss, I came across a “shew-wee!” stat. IdeaWorksCompany, a consulting firm, published an eye-widening analysis. It estimated that eight U.S. airlines brought in a combined $4.2 billion in assigned seat revenue in 2022 alone.

Seating fees are generated through passengers selecting their preferred seats. Higher fees are inflicted based on the location and spaciousness of each airplane seating area. What’s more, these assigned seat fees are in addition to base ticketing and baggage revenue.

The airlines – Alaska, Allegiant, American, Delta, Frontier, JetBlue, Spirit, and United – earned this revenue from just their domestic networks. The analysis estimated that seating fee revenue has now grown to 80% of baggage fee revenue. In 2022, that was approximately $5.1 billion for U.S. domestic flights.

Airline cabin seating with blue seats
Rsty2897 via iStock

Last year, the U.S. Department of Transportation began encouraging all U.S. airlines to commit to fee-free family boarding. Many folks feel that fee-based seat assignments when traveling with children are predatory revenue generators. Official legislation that guarantees fee-free family seating in is the works. In the meantime, the DOT created a public-facing dashboard displaying airline names and whether they have committed to the cause.

As of publishing, the dashboard shows Allegiant, Delta, Hawaiian, Southwest, Spirit, and United have not fully committed to fee-free family seating.

Southwest Airlines is reevaluating its boarding methods and lack of seating fees

Southwest is known for its “different” boarding procedures. Unlike the eight airlines listed above, Southwest allows customers to pick their own seats after boarding. The priority isn’t in assigned seat location but in the ability to pick seats first. Yes, the airline’s ordered boarding does require passengers who want to board before others to pay more. But, these are optional fees.

I recently flew Southwest with my family. I was pleased that the airline gives folks with small children in tow priority boarding. The lack of fee-based assigned seating allowed us to sit with our kids without ponying up additional cash.

Following the announcement of a significant loss, CEO Robert Jordan emphasized that although he remains satisfied with the airline’s overall offering, he acknowledges that the current “product” was conceived during a period of less crowded flights. Recognizing evolving customer preferences, he has advocated for a thorough examination of transformative measures regarding boarding and seating arrangements.

While Southwest says it won’t make any formal announcements until September, considering the business case for assigned seating fees, they may be incoming. The airlines will likely need to enact a combination of cost-cutting plus revenue-generating initiatives.