A recent Airfarewatchdog poll revealed that after checked bag fees, the most hated airline fee is the one extracted for advanced seat selection. This used to be entirely free, but no more.

Say you log on to JetBlue’s Web site to book a flight. You choose one, you select a seat you like – paying $10 or more per leg for more room up front or in an exit row. Bang. You’re done.

Now try doing the same on Delta.com – what, you want an exit row? You want to sit up front? Better have your SkyMiles number handy.

Got none? Back of the bus, sir.

Let’s say you’re on the Web once more, surfing the site of Denver-based low-fare flyer Frontier. Here, you book the lowest fare available – clever you! –  there will be no getting anywhere near a seating plan, let alone any selecting of favorite aisle seats up front. Not until 24 hours before takeoff, you won’t – and then, let’s hope that all that's left isn't the dreaded middle seat.

Still, things could be worse – there’s Allegiant Air, which charges between $4.99 and $24.99 to anyone – anyone – who wants to get near a seat map before the day of flight. Leaving you, of course, to wonder if that Orlando flight you paid $39.99 for is going to be the worst of your life, sandwiched between two terrifyingly loud, sugar-charged children who’ve never been to Disney World (and are also recovering from nasty colds, cough cough.) Unless, of course, you cough up.

These days, flyers who don’t like surprises ought to take heed when booking a flight. Rare is the airline with an advance seat selection process that mirrors any other; what seems so sensible for one (open up the whole thing, charge an arm and a leg for the really good stuff and bring in a nice chunk of change per flight) seems so difficult for others to grasp (Southwest, which clings to its no-seat-assignments-ever rule, which its loyal customers continue to pretend to not mind.)

Policies all over the place

While it can seem as if there’s no rhyme or reason to the way each airline handles the divvying up of seats on its planes, there actually is. If you take a look at this chart, which goes over the current seat selection rules for 16 airlines, a pattern emerges – legacy carriers such as Delta and American continue to try and please their frequent flyers first, holding back the best seats (among them, exit rows) for their most loyal customers. Those that are new, new-ish or focused on low fares (and less on loyalty) tend to be a bit of a free-for-all.

Some of the legacy carriers like United, want to have it all. They want to please their long-time customers, but they also find the lure of making a buck off of premium seating too much to ignore. 

Thus, on United, you have Economy Plus, featuring five more inches of legroom in the upfront rows on all domestic and international flights. Elite frequent fliers are generally given these seats automatically. However, anyone can buy in, based on availability – rates start at $9 and go up to $109 for long-haul flights. United even sells a $425 annual Economy Plus pass, ensuring you’ll always have more legroom.    

Other airlines that have resisted making such bold changes are now giving in; Continental, for example, recently announced a similar program, where premium seats (including exit rows) will be made available for a fee for those who want to log on within 24 hours of departure and select them; the airline has said these seats will not be available for purchase at the airport. When last we tried, attempting to select an exit row seat within 24 hours of departure on a Continental flight yields nothing more than a rollover message instructing you to “request at check-in.” But unless they've changed their minds, this is probably fixed by now.

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