Desperately seeking more revenue to pay for pricier fuel, US Airways said yesterday that it would impose a fee of $5 to $30 on coach passengers who want an aisle or window seat at the front of a plane.
Calling its program "Choice Seats," the airline said that starting May 7, customers could reserve the seats up to 24 hours in advance if they checked in and got a boarding pass at its Web site, www.usairways.com, at least 90 minutes before a scheduled departure. Customers checking in at an airport also may be able to reserve a seat for the fee if one is available.
Air travelers irked by the fee - part of what airlines call "a la carte pricing" to capture more revenue - might get relief from another development announced yesterday. The U.S. Department of Transportation ordered airlines to double the compensation they must pay passengers - up to $800 - for bumping them from a flight. Airlines said the rule might result in less service to smaller cities.
The intrusions into passengers' pockets are part of a trend in the industry. Airlines steadily have added fees for services that used to be included in the price of a ticket. It started with charging for meals and snacks, and now extends, on some airlines, to pillows and blankets. US Airways recently said it would charge $25 for a second piece of checked baggage, a fee that most other major carriers have matched.
The seat fee is not new. Several other U.S. carriers, including Northwest Airlines Corp., Allegiant Air and Spirit Airlines Inc., have adopted similar policies that let customers pay extra to sit in certain seats.
Still, word of US Airways' move animated some Internet discussion boards, with reactions varying from scorn to resignation or grudging acknowledgment of rising costs.
The news did not faze Neil Forbes, 53, of Coventry, England, who was checking in yesterday at Philadelphia International Airport for a flight to Alabama. He said extra fees were fine as long as they were optional, "without deteriorating other services."
Besides, Forbes said, "coming from the U.K., low-budget airlines charge all kinds of additional fees on top of your basic fare, disguising the real price of the ticket."
Steve Devine, 46, an engineer from Philadelphia who was checking in for a flight to Nashville, said he would just sit somewhere else on a plane.
"So it's OK for me," said Devine, a business traveler more bothered by other things. "If I could just print out my boarding pass when checking in online, and I did not have to stand in line to get it at the airport, that would be worth $5."
Under the US Airways program, it is possible that none of the extra-fee seats even will be available because the airline's frequent fliers with "preferred" status - those who fly at least 25,000 miles a year - already can reserve the same seats for free at any time after buying a ticket. That policy will continue under the Choice Seats program, the airline said.
US Airways Group Inc., in a message to employees, billed the extra cost "as little as $5." The airline revealed the full range of the seat charges only in a separate e-mail. They are:
$30 to Europe.
$25 to Hawaii.
$20 to Latin America, the Caribbean and Bermuda from Philadelphia, and $15 from other cities.
$15 on domestic flights of 1,101 miles or more.
$10 on flights of 501 to 1,100 miles.
$5 on flights of 500 miles or less.
US Airways said about 8 percent of the seats on most flights would be included in the Choice Seats program.
The only aircraft type to which it will not apply is the Saab 340, a turboprop plane flown by US Airways Express carriers.
The program also does not apply to exit-row seats, which often are sought by experienced travelers because they have extra legroom.
On the new bumping-compensation rule to take effect next month, the government said travelers forced onto another flight that took them to their domestic destination more than two hours late would be paid the full price of their fare, up to $800.
If bumped passengers on domestic flights arrive less than two hours after their original arrival time, they can get $400. The arrival time limit is four hours for international flights. The payments are in addition to the value of the passenger's ticket, which can be used for alternative transportation or be refunded if unused.
The new bumped-fliers rule also applies to more planes, covering most aircraft that carry more than 30 passengers rather than 60.
"This rule will ensure fliers are more fairly reimbursed," Transportation Secretary Mary Peters said in a statement.
The previous $200 and $400 limits had not been raised since 1978.
The Air Transport Association, which represents the nation's largest carriers, and the Regional Airline Association both complained.
"This administration . . . is tone deaf to the incredible challenges this industry is going through," said Roger Cohen, president of the Regional Airline Association.