by Hugh Morris, The Telegraph, June 28, 2017
Social media is still awash with Ryanair passengers furious that the airline has separated them from friends and family after they chose not to pay to select their seat. And now the BBC has announced its Watchdog series will investigate the claims.
The budget carrier has been repeatedly forced to deny that it changed its policy on seat allocation to “punish” those who do not purchase a chosen seat by splitting up groups of travellers or placing them in middle rows.
The airline says that as more customers want to reserve window and aisle seats, it leaves only the middle seats to be allocated. It also says that 95 per cent of its flights are full, meaning that there are fewer seats to randomly allocate. Ryanair maintains neither its policy on seat allocation nor the computer algorithm used to accommodate fliers has changed – yet evidence suggests it is only recently that there has been a surge in complaints.
However, in a programme to be aired on Wednesday night, the BBC talked to Dr Jennifer Rodgers from the University of Oxford who helped conduct an experiment where four researchers booked onto four flights and were split up each time onto single, separate middle seats throughout the plane. Watchdog said that each time the group was able "to determine from the seating availability charts online that there was plenty of room on the plane for them to be allocated seats together". But they were not.
The BBC consulted Dr Rodgers who found that the odds of that happening randomly were "astronomical": "you have a greater chance of winning the lottery".
Ryanair denied that it was trying to make more money from its customers.
As pressure mounts on airlines to increase their profit margins, what do other airlines have to say about the way they allocate seating? Will other carriers follow suit? Will families soon have to pay to be sat together?
EasyJet: 'families sit together more than 99 per cent of the time'
Ryanair’s fiercest rival said passengers should check in as early as possible (30 days before flying; Ryanair free check in opens only four days before departure) for the best chance of sitting together.
A spokesperson said: “With regard to families however easyJet understands how important it is that families are allocated appropriate seating together. If passengers choose not to pay to select their seats our seating systems will always aim to seat families together when they check-in online, but clearly we have to allocate customers on a first come first served basis. We utilise a sophisticated algorithm which seats families together more than 99 per cent of the time - at no additional cost.”
It says that should families find themselves split up, staff at the airport and on board will attempt to “allocate as many as the family together as we can”.
British Airways: 'all customers can choose seats 24 hours before departure for free'
A spokesperson for BA said that all customers are given the chance to choose their seat for free 24 hours before their flight, but passengers have the option of paying for some specific seats - such as ones with more legroom - from £7 on short-haul flights.
The spokesperson added: “A few days before online check-in opens we do our best to seat families together for free. We will always make sure that any children under 12 are seated with an adult from their group.
Passengers travelling with an infant under the age of two are able to reserve seats free of charge at the time of booking.
Norwegian: 'we always aim to allocate seats to allow groups to sit together'
A spokesperson for Norwegian said that seats are allocated automatically at the time of check in and that the airline “always aims to allocate seats to allow groups to sit together, with priority given to family groups”.
“On rare occasions where there are not enough seats available in the same location, our check-in staff will liaise with the flight cabin crew to find a solution on-board that allows a family group to sit together,” the spokesperson added.
Monarch: 'we will always try to sit families together'
In a statement Monarch said: “Monarch will always try to sit families together and a child (2-15 years) will never be sat without an accompanying adult. During peak periods, or where many people have checked in online and reserved seats, it may be necessary to split groups/families, but a child will always be sat with an accompanying adult from the same group/family.
“If customers want to choose a seat in advance, they can pay a small fee which will vary by flight. Standard seat fee selection prices vary from £3 to £11 depending on route and dates of travel. If customers do not wish to pay for this, they can check-in online 24 hours prior to departure and they will be allocated seats at this time.”
Jet2.com: 'we always endeavour to sit customers together'
A spokesperson said: “We always endeavour to sit customers together, particularly families with young childre, however we advise customers to pre-book their seating to guarantee the seats they want.”