Recently, I flew from JFK to Burbank on JetBlue Airways. I paid $40 more than I'm accustomed to paying for a ticket to Los Angeles. This time, however, I couldn't blame the rising cost on fuel surcharges. This was my own fault. After all, who doesn't prefer an exit-row seat, with more room (up to 8 inches more) to stretch the legs?
For a long time, JetBlue passengers had free and unfettered access to exit row seats at any time, as long as they met government requirements. As of this month, however, there's a $20 charge each way (shorter flights will be $10.)
In today's turbulent skies, few people have blinked at the change. After all, JetBlue isn't alone in charging for more space. At least you have the option to buy or not buy. Many airlines won’t entertain exit-row seat requests in advance at all, while others only offer the extra legroom to their elite mileage-plan members.
Bottom line: Everyone's got 'em — exit row seats, that is — but each airline’s rules for getting them, FAA restrictions aside, are a lot like you and me: completely unique! Note that the following information was accurate at time of publication, but with airlines scrambling for every ancillary dollar they can get, new fees will be added and old ones may be increased.
If you're keen to get an exit-row seat on your flight, here is Airfarewatchdog.com's comprehensive how-to guide, airline by airline.
Advance booking: First come, first served – anyone may book any time between the ticket purchase and day of travel
Charge: $20 each way (includes all legs of each journey)
At the airport: Sure — if there’s anything left
Tip: AirTran is notorious for its stingy seat pitch in its regular coach seats — as little as 30 inches on its Boeing 717s. Pay the $20 — if there's any room left by the time you book, that is.
Advance booking: Purchasing a Full Flex ticket? (Those are the really pricey, full fare ones.) Are you an MVP or MVP Gold member? You’re good
At the airport: Any customer can request or select (from a kiosk), based on availability.
Advance booking: AAirpass members, AAadvantage Platinum and Gold members, other top tier oneworld alliance members; those traveling on certain unrestricted fares
At the airport: First come, first served — passengers may assign themselves exit row seats using the self check-in kiosks as well as by request in person from an agent.
Advance booking: Passengers may request to be assigned an exit row seat any time between booking and day of travel — provided they call and speak to an agent and make the case as to why they should get the seat (i.e. “I’m tall!")
At the airport: First-come, first-served — you may select exit row seating from a seat map on the self check-in kiosks, as well as by making your request in person.
Delta Air Lines
Advance booking: Open to all, and you don’t even have to ask — passengers can select exit row seats for themselves when booking on delta.com
At the airport: First come, first-served. Self check-in kiosks will allow you to select exit row seating.
Advance booking: No
At the airport: Yes, based on availability; you must request from an agent
Tip: As with the other airlines that follow this policy, to the early airport-check-ins on the day of travel go the spoils.
Advance booking: No
At the airport: First come, first served at check-in or the gate — Hawaiian Air has self-check-in available at Honolulu, but the system will not allow you to seat yourself in an exit row.
Charge: $10 or $20 each way, depending on the length of flight (this includes six rows of seating at the front of the plane
Advance booking: Anyone willing to pay has access to inventory online or over the phone, and can change their seat at any time before their flight
At the airport: First come, first served on remaining seats
Tip: Does the online seat map say everything's all booked up? Just get to the airport early on the day of travel and use the self check-in kiosks, where the seat map often looks very different (that is to say, wide open).
Advance booking: 24 hours prior to departure, online or using airport kiosk
Charge: $5 to $35 per flight each way (each connecting flight incurs a separate fee)
At the airport: First come, first-served at time of departure if there are unused exit row seats, with no charge
Tip: WorldPerks Elite and SkyTeam Elite members can select exit-row seats free of charge on nwa.com or through a Northwest self-service check-in kiosk 24 hours prior to departure.
Advance booking: No
Charge: Not exactly
At the airport: First boarded, first served
Tip: Southwest, as we all know, doesn't assign seats, but if you buy a higher-priced "Business Select" fare you get to board the plane in the first portion of the 'A' boarding group, so your chances of grabbing an exit row are greatly enhanced. You also get a free cocktail and other perks.
Advance booking: No
At the airport: First come, first served
Tip: On some legs, the former business class cabin (once called Spirit Plus, it is now known as Big Front Seat and offers no upgrades beyond a more spacious seat) can be cheaper than regular coach fares — a June fare from LaGuardia to Detroit was $5 less in BFS. Go figure!
Advance booking: Elite Mileage Plus members (Premier, Premier Executive, and 1K) only. However, Because exit rows are part of United’s Economy Plus seating — now available for purchase any time — regular types can buy themselves at least a little more space (from 3 inches to 5 inches more than typical) and attempt to grab for the grand prize once at the airport
Charge: Free to Elites; for everyone else, because exit rows are part of Economy Plus, pricing varies. For example, the price is $14 for a short hop from Denver, but $61 on Denver-Honolulu flights
At the airport: Oddly, the only chance for someone who has purchased Economy Plus to change their seat to the exit row is at the gate, at the agent’s discretion. Of course, Elites are excluded from this
Tip: Economy Plus is sold until it’s full — you may buy all the way up to the gate.
Advance booking: Seats are "exclusively reserved" for Dividend Miles Preferred customers
At the airport: Everyone else takes their chances at check-in, or at the gate
Tip: From May 7, 2008, the airline is charging from $5 to $35 for aisle and window seats up front. Similar to Northwest's scheme, the Choice Seats program will differ only in that passengers may not book until 24 hours before the flight, and only via Web Check-in (these seats will not be sold at the airport). Confused? We are too.
Advance booking: First come, first served at time of booking, can purchase any time
Charge: $25 (this goes for bulkhead seats as well)
At the airport: Same — based on availability, either at machines or at check-in
Tip: Leg room-lovers prefer the bulkhead to the exit row — there's a little more space in front of you, and the cost is the same.