Exit Rows Fees Latest Effort for Airline Income

It seems like the new fees and surcharges by airlines keep growing and growing. First, they started charging for food. Baggage soon followed. Then, they started having "premium" seats in coach. The latest way for airlines to squeeze customers takes that one step further: they are beginning to charge more for exit row seats. While I understand the airlines' rationale for thinking up creative ways to attain more revenue, as a consumer, I'm not thrilled with this change.

The New York Times reports on this development today:

Last week, Continental Airlines said it would begin offering exit-row seats in coach to anyone who wanted to buy "extra legroom." Continental said the per-seat price would depend on the route and the demand. Members of the two top elite-status levels would continue to be able to book the seats without charge, the airline said.

The airline industry generally exhibits usual oligopolistic behavior. Once one major airline changes a policy the rest usually follow. So I'd expect to see most airlines who offer exit row seats with additional legroom also make this change in the months to come.

As someone who once traveled several times per month as a consultant, racking up several hundred thousand frequent flyer miles, I learned as well as anyone the joy of the exit row. Savvy travelers know that you can often fully open your laptops and stretch your legs a little in those seats -- but for a coach fare.

Still, I can see where airlines are coming from. If the seats offer a better in-flight experience, then they can probably get away with charging a premium. Their perspective seems logical, except for the fact that the exit row isn't just any other seat with a little extra legroom.

The Times article notes this distinction and disapproves:

Evacuation is the sole purpose of the exit rows, which abut emergency doors. So in selling exit-row seats to all comers, airlines may raise concerns about who, exactly, is sitting in those seats -- and whether they are able to perform the specified emergency duties, chief among them that they have "sufficient mobility, strength or dexterity" to open the emergency door and help with the evacuation.

Exit-row seats have usually been occupied by frequent fliers who often booked them in advance, free, as perks. "The presumption has been loosely that elite fliers at least had the experience to know what the drill is in an emergency, which is basically that you have to be prepared to get that door popped open," said Joe Brancatelli, who publishes the subscription business-travel Web site Joesentme.com.

I found myself scratching my head after reading this. The article starts off on the right track, but then takes an odd deviation. Frankly, I think newcomers are more likely to pay attention to the flight attendant's presentation than seasoned flyers, who have heard the spiel a million times. But the freshness of those directions probably outweighs any supposed expertise that experienced flyers have obtained. Unless they've actually done it before, I'm not sure how having passively heard the directions dozens of times outweighs having actively listened to them just moments ago.

My concern is a different one: if the exit row passengers have responsibilities demanded of them in case of emergency, why would they be expected to pay more -- don't those responsibilities earn them the extra legroom? That's always how I had viewed it. I assumed that the premium I paid for the pleasure of sitting in the exit row was the role I had promised to play if necessary. Other than handling the physical and psychological stress of removing the 40+ pound door during an emergency, it's my understanding that the exit row passengers might also assist the flight attendants with evacuation. Finally, exit row passengers also face the risk of getting trampled by others rushing to get off the plane.

That varies vastly with first class passengers, who simply pay for a more pleasant experience. The exit row passengers may get a better experience as well, but there's a chance that they would have a far more stressful time than even the regular coach passengers in the case of emergency. Isn't that a high enough price to pay for a little extra legroom?