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Air Canada walks back new seat selection policy change after backlash

Air Canada planes sit on the tarmac at Pearson International Airport in Toronto on Wednesday, April 28, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette Air Canada planes sit on the tarmac at Pearson International Airport in Toronto on Wednesday, April 28, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
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Air Canada has temporarily walked back its decision to charge a new seat selection fee for travellers booked on the lowest fares.

Under the old policy, customers with fares that didn't offer free seat selection prior to check-in would be randomly assigned a seat at the time of check-in, with the option to change that seat to another available seat for free.

However, some Air Canada customers received notices earlier this month stating the airline would soon charge passengers with standard or basic fares to change their automatically assigned seats during check-in.

A Facebook account belonging to Ontario-based travel agent Kerry Berlinquette shared an image of a notice she received on April 18.

"We're introducing a new seating assignment process for Standard or Basic Fares," the notice reads.

"When customers enter the check-in flow, our system will automatically assign a seat free of charge for those who have not purchased a seat in advance … If they wish to change their automatically assigned seat, they can easily do so for a fee."

The notice, which stated the change would take effect April 24, triggered a wave of complaints by angry consumers on Facebook, X and Reddit.

"That stinks. It was bad enough you had to fight for a seat 24 hours before flight. Just another money grabber," one Facebook user wrote in a comment on Berlinquette's post.

"It's frustrating when traditional airlines behave like budget airlines," a Reddit user wrote on April 24. "They have eliminated free checked baggage and now they have also removed the option of selecting seats for free during check-in. What will be next?"

Following some of the backlash, Air Canada issued a statement to airline industry news website Pax News clarifying the policy change.

"What has changed, and is consistent with our branded fares, is that after seats are assigned at check-in for no fee, customers who now wish to change to a different seat from the one we assigned them will have to pay the same fee they would have paid prior to check-in," the airline wrote to Pax News, which reported the airline would continue to assign seats to ensure families on the same booking are seated together for no fee, as per Canada's Air Passenger Protection Regulations.

"This is the practice at other airlines, including some in Canada."

However, by April 26, Air Canada had paused the new fee. The flag carrier would not confirm whether consumer backlash had influenced the decision and declined to answer questions by CTVNews.ca about why it had introduced the fee and how long the pause would last.

"We paused the implementation for operational reasons to ensure a smooth rollout for our customers and employees," a spokesperson, who did not provide a name, wrote in an email to CTVNews.ca on Monday.

"We will communicate next steps at the appropriate time."

Air Canada would not be the first Canadian carrier to charge a fee for seat selection after check-in. However, the airlines that charge a seat selection fee, such as Flair and Porter, tend to be low-cost carriers that offer more affordable base fares than Canada's flag carrier.

One exception is WestJet, Canada's second largest carrier after Air Canada, which also charges a fee for seat selection. 

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