Seat Cheats

The enormous hidden costs of low-cost air travel are symptomatic of a disturbing cultural shift

Sharp practice, if not outright dishonesty, is bound to grow in a society in which personal trust and honour are replaced by law and the legal adjudication of obligations. Everyone then does what he can get away with, for a reliance on the law as the sole determinant of the permissible destroys all sense of shame. It is small wonder that “Cheat, that ye be not cheated” seems increasingly to be the rule by which we live.

Recently, I bought a ticket online from a low-cost airline. With each click of the mouse the cost rose, until it reached 25 times the advertised fare. I was angered in a way that I should not have been if the final cost had been asked of me in the first place. I suppose that by now, having bought many such tickets, I should be used to the sharp practice, but I am not. It still irritates me.

I knew, of course, that I should be charged a credit card fee even if I used my debit card. But this particular airline found a new wheeze to misrepresent its fare. It charged an additional £6 for a seat.

Could I have avoided this charge if I had volunteered to stand rather than sit? Reader, I could not: I had to have a seat. In what sense, then, could the original fare properly have been advertised at £x rather than at £x+£6?  In none that I could fathom. I have known British government ministers more honest and straightforward than this.

Even this was not the end of it, however. The website now gave me what it called the “total cost” and asked me to press the “continue” button if I agreed to it. I did so, only to discover that the next page had added a further £6 for reasons that I was quite unable to discover.

Since the airline was the only one going to my destination, I swallowed my rage. 

A lack of straightforwardness in dealing with customers is now commonplace, and it seems worse in Britain than elsewhere. On the very same day, I booked a four-hour train journey on a route that I know to be always very busy. I tried to book a seat online but found I could not do so, and so I called the telephone number indicated.

The assistant who answered my call told me I could not reserve a seat. “But,” she added brightly, “you may take any seat subject to availability.”

It was reassuring that, even in these days of official bullying, passengers on trains are still permitted to sit in available seats.

“You mean that I might have to stand,” I said, “if the train is full, as it often is?”

“No, sir, you can sit in any seat, subject to availability.”

Try as I might I could not get her to admit that this meant that I might have to stand. She had evidently been trained not to deny the possibility, but rather not to admit it. She was like a common-or-garden politician answering — which is to say, not answering — questions put to him by an interviewer.

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