• In 2017 some consumers and consumer groups wrote to ask us about how airlines allocate seats to groups of people travelling together.

    What is the issue?

    When booking tickets online, many airlines charge extra to choose a specific seat, meaning that people have to pay more to guarantee sitting with their companion or group. If passengers choose not to buy specific seats they may still be able to sit together but it is not guaranteed. 

    Research carried out recently by the CAA suggested that the majority of people are aware that airlines might not automatically allocate seats together. Around half of respondents (47%) thought that airlines would still do their best to sit people in a group together in any case.

    However, our research found that in reality the chances of sitting together if you don’t pay for specific seats can vary widely depending on which airline you use.

    There are lots of reasons why people might want to be sure they will be able to sit together, such as: 

    • They expect to have seats together having booked tickets in one go; 
    • They are travelling with children; 
    • They are travelling with a companion or someone to help them, or they need to support somebody in their group; or
    • They are travelling for a special occasion and sitting together is important. 

    Different regulations mean that people travelling with young children or those with disabilities should be sat with those accompanying them wherever possible (see Note 1). However, these rules don’t apply to everyone. And we recognise that people do not always want to swap seats at check in or when they board the plane, but may prefer to have the security of knowing that they will definitely be seated together from the outset. For some people sitting together may not be an optional extra at all, but necessary for them to be able to take a flight.

    We wanted to investigate how widespread the issue was, if consumers had concerns about it, and what impact the practice has on people. We were also concerned that the way sitting together is priced by some airlines (as an optional extra added later in the ticket buying process) might be making it more difficult for consumers to make comparisons and choose the service and price that is best for them.

    To find out more we asked YouGov to survey 4,000 people in December 2017, to ask them which airline they flew with in the last 3 years, and whether they were sat together as a group (see Note 2).

    Our research showed that:

    • Just over half of respondents reported that their airline informed them before they booked their flight that they would need to pay to ensure their group could sit together
    • Ten percent of respondents said that they had been informed after they booked; a further ten per cent said that they were never made aware by their airline that they may need to pay more to guarantee sitting together 
    • Although the vast majority of respondents were aware that they might not be able to sit together even if they booked as a group, almost half believed that their airline would automatically allocate them seats together
    • However, two in five respondents thought that their airline would not automatically sit them together
    • Around half of all passengers who sat together did not have to pay an additional charge to do so. However, seven per cent of respondents that ended up sitting together said that they had to change seats either at check-in or on-board to avoid being sat apart
    • Different airlines may behave differently. Consumers flying with some airlines were more likely to report being separated from their group than others
    • Of the group of respondents that paid extra to sit together, six in ten reported that they did so because of the risk that their airline might split their group up
    • Almost half of respondents (46%) felt negatively towards the airline when they realised they would have to pay more to guarantee sitting together

    Bringing transparency

    The Government has tasked the CAA with helping ensure consumers have information to help them compare air travel services. As there is a wide variation between airlines we are publishing the information from our survey here as a table of comparisons, to help consumers who are travelling in a group compare the chances of sitting with their party when using different airlines.

    Of those respondents that did not pay more to sit together, the proportion who ended up sitting with their group varied according to which airline they flew with.

    The table below shows these results for top airlines operating in the UK by terminal passengers. This table includes the top 10 airlines operating in the UK by terminal passengers excluding those where there were fewer than 50 respondents surveyed. A sample size of 50 respondents does not represent a wide enough cross-section of the target population to be considered statistically reliable.

    Chances of being separated if not paying extra to guarantee seats by airline

    Total respondents who flew with this airline
    People who didn’t pay more to sit together and WERE separated from their group 
    Weighted base: All GB adults who have flown as part of a group where they were the ticket holder in the last year 4316 18%
    British Airways (BA) 456 15%
    easyJet 930 15%
    Emirates 100 22%
    Flybe 144 12%
    Jet2.com 343 16%
    Monarch Airlines
    119 12%
    617 35%
    Thomas Cook 275 15%
    TUI Airways (previously Thomson Airways) 383 12%
    Virgin Atlantic 131 18% 

    Note 1: Young children and infants who are accompanied by adults should ideally be seated in the same seat row as the adult. Where this is not possible, children should be separated by no more than one seat row from accompanying adults. This is because the speed of an emergency evacuation may be affected by adults trying to reach their children. Airlines should make all reasonable efforts to give people accompanying a passenger with disabilities or reduced mobility seats next to one another.

    Note 2: When we talk about paying to sit together we are referring to people who bought specific seats next to one another. We are not referring to other types of seat-buying, such as seats with extra legroom. We defined a group as two or more people travelling together, who booked their tickets as part of the same transaction. We defined being seated together as sitting next to each other in the same row, or immediately across an aisle.

    Note 3: Data tables

    Update report

    We continued to gather evidence and consider the issue, and in October 2018 we published an update report.This looked at: 

    • the legal context, along with established guidance and good practice;
    • how different airlines approach the practice of allocated seating; and
    • evidence of how consumers experience the extent and nature of allocated seating charges

    The key issues we considered included:

    • The impact on passengers with reduced mobility, some of whom may have paid to be sat together with a carer when the airline would have sat them together for free.
    • The impact on families with travelling with children as parents highlighted concerns about being separated from their children - particularly those under 12 – when guidance states they should be sat together
    • Transparency, as people might not always understand the likelihood of being split up, leading them potentially to pay the optional fee even when the chances of being split up are low.

    We are now proposing a new framework, following engagement with stakeholders, which will be used to assess airline seating practices. This includes transparency, options to add information about travelling with children, older people and those with accessibility needs. In addition, we will be working with airlines to explore ways to make prices clearer and more transparent. We will work with other regulators on the use of allocated seating algorithms. And we will continue to investigate and oversee safety requirements in this area.

    You can find the full report here: Paid-for allocated seating in aviation: an update (CAP1709)