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airplane seatsIt’s nice to snag a seat in the front row of a plane and exit early … but is it worth 20 bucks?

With American Airlines’ recently announced Express Seats service, travelers can now select seats in the front of the plane for quick and easy debarkation. This new program also includes Group 1 boarding, which means passengers who sign up for Express Seats can be among the first coach fliers to board the plane. This is an especially beneficial product for those impatient travelers who bypass the line and slyly sidle up to the gate opening moments before the flight attendant calls their group number (and yes, we see you cutting the queue).

Surprise, surprise: This will cost you. Prices vary based on mileage, but introductory fees start at $19 each way. For example, buying an Express Seat on a flight from St. Louis to Chicago will cost $19, and on a flight from New York to Los Angeles the cost jumps to $39 (the service is available for domestic flights only).

American is one of the last big-name airlines to jump on the pay-for-priority bandwagon. US Airways, Continental, United, AirTran and several others have similar systems, charging coach passengers more for earlier boarding, seats that are near the front of the plane, or window and aisle seats.

Airlines have long been advocates of the class system, forcing proletariat passengers to wait in lines and wedge into shoebox-size seats while the elites fully extend their legs and ponder the in-flight wine list. But we have to wonder: Has this gone too far? In ancient times when checked bags were free and front-row coach seats were first come, first serve, a passenger who purchased a standard-fare ticket was qualified for a comfortable, pleasant flight. These days, a “comfortable flight” costs way more than the airlines’ published fares — and budget-minded travelers who simply wait in line and book ahead are denied the perks once to credited to early birds.

Will the airlines continue to split coach seats into sub-classes, forcing passengers to pay a fee for virtually everything but the smelly row next to the bathroom? Such a scenario isn’t realistic (well, we hope it isn’t), but there are still plenty of free onboard features, from tray tables to reclining seats, that could cost extra in the near future if this trend continues. Tell us what you think!

How much aggravation must travelers put up with to save a few bucks?

spirit airlines

Last week, dedicated Spirit Airlines customer Richard Rosichan (known as RichardNika on our message boards), who has flown with the airline roughly 50 times in the past few years, made up his mind to never fly Spirit again — and is in the process of filing suit against the company.

For years, Rosichan was a faithful customer, logging more than 80,000 miles with the airline. As a member of Spirit’s $9 Fare Club, Rosichan estimates he’s saved as much as $4,000 flying with Spirit over the years (in comparison to standard fare prices on major carriers).

All the while, Rosichan remained undeterred by Spirit’s history of controversial practices and policies. A nickel-and-diming pioneer, Spirit was one of the first carriers to levy fees for beverages and checked bags in 2007. And Spirit’s gotten plenty of negative exposure from the offensive ad campaigns it has launched over the years (a recent Spirit ad poked fun at the Gulf oil spill). This week, Spirit made headlines after the airline started charging passengers for carry-on bags on August 1.

But it wasn’t the baggage fees that swayed Rosichan.

Rosichan’s positive relationship with Spirit Airlines changed drastically on July 26, after a canceled Spirit flight left him stranded. According to Rosichan, Spirit canceled its 6:50 flight from Atlanta to Fort Lauderdale due to weather and offered only to rebook ticketed passengers on a flight leaving two days later. Rosichan posted about his experience on the IndependentTraveler.com message boards: “[Spirit was] dismissive and totally uninterested in cases involving connection problems, lodging, meals, parents with toddlers (at least two that I saw) and medical issues. … There were no supervisory personnel present. We were told no arrangements would be made with other carriers.”

Unfortunately, the airlines are not required by U.S. law to compensate passengers for delayed or canceled flights. But most major airlines have interline agreements with other carries, which means they can book stranded passengers on a different airline if need be. Since Spirit Airlines has no interline agreements with other carriers, a stranded Spirit passenger is in a particularly precarious position.

Rosichan eventually purchased a flight on Delta and made his way home. He is currently in the process of filing a grievance against Spirit Airlines in small claims court.

Rosichan’s change of heart raises the question at the heart of the matter. Notwithstanding Spirit’s flood of petty fees, Rosichan saved a significant amount of money flying Spirit, which sometimes offers tickets as cheap as $2 before taxes and fees — but was it worth it? Tell us what you think.