Sunday, October 10, 2010

British Airways vs Delta: Seat Wars to London to See The Queen

By the time you read this my British Airways flight will have landed in London's Heathrow Airport and I'll be in Southampton to attend the gala events aboard Cunard Line's Queen Elizabeth, including her royal naming ceremony where she'll be christened by Her Majesty The Queen.

In the past my luck with British Airways has been rather spotty, despite having Club World (Business) class tickets. The food is generally pretty dreadful, even by airline standards, and the service is just okay. At least the drinks are still free. The last time I flew with them I was even downgraded when I checked in at Gatwick on a return flight to Atlanta. It turned out that they'd overbooked Club World and didn't want to split up families, so they singled me out as a solo traveler to sit in Premium Economy. When we landed and I saw how trashed the Club World section was by the dozen or so kids in the family groups up there, I was glad I hadn't been in the midst of the chaos.

On that particular flight I was unable to reserve my seat ahead of time (apparently due to the overbooking situation) and I wanted to avoid that on this trip to the UK. Sleep is more important on an overnight flight and the seats in Club World fully recline. As soon as I received my itinerary and booking number I opened the website to complete the 'Advance Passenger Information' section, which is a government requirement of all passengers before travel. No problem. It was easy enough to fill in. Then I moved on to the seat selection page of the site and stopped cold. While there were certainly enough open seats from which to choose, I discovered that to "pre-reserve" one of them I would have to pay an additional $90! For that, I would have "dibs" on the remaining seats. Yes, it appeared that quite a few Club World passengers had drunk the BA Kool-Aid and paid for the privilege of selecting a seat when they booked the flight (or perhaps their most frequent Frequent Flyers aren't dinged for the fee). However, I learned I could wait until check-in to choose my seat, which the BA website cheerfully states "is free for everyone from 24 hours before your flight departs." How generous of them.

"Hidden" airline fees were recently the topic of discussion between consumer and travel groups (including the Consumer Travel Alliance, the National Consumers League, and the Business Travel Coalition) and the U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, with the groups offering their support for his efforts to require transparency in airline ticket pricing. I hope they are successful because that British Airways charge for reserving ANY seat in advance was a stunner. Many airlines charge for premium seats, particularly those with more leg room, but this is the first time I've run up against a charge for ANY seat, especially when flying in a premium section of the plane.

Did I pay the $90? No, of course not. However, when I moved on to the website to complete the booking information for next Tuesday's return flight to Atlanta, I happily also selected my preferred seat. For no additional charge. Take a guess which airline will get my business in the future.

Now...on to Southampton to board Queen Elizabeth and share our first impressions for the next couple days (WiFi connections willing).


Will Belden said...

Good post. This un-bundling of services is really going to push a traveler revolution at some point. Unfortunately, the airlines have the power (until such time as further regulation takes it away from them) to make up fees for anything they want.

In your scenario, with what I'm assuming were first class tickets, it seems wrong to squeeze another nickel from you for choosing your seat.

You might enjoy the blog at This guy was the CNN Travel Troubleshooter. The posts at CNN dwindled and now is completely gone from the Travel section. But the posts are excellent, so I went searching and found his blog directly.

Daniel said...

When you fly business, you expect not to be nickled and dimed the entire way. However, I guess it is no different than selecting a stateroom on a ship, where the premier locations cost more.

Please take photos! How lucky you are to join Cunard for this extraordinary event.