Around 38million passengers have been caught up in a £400million airline seat booking racket now being investigated by the aviation watchdog.
Official research shows that an estimated five million group bookings were split up when they flew with major airlines in the past 12 months.
A further eight million groups of family and friends were forced into paying extra charges of up to £20 per seat to ensure that they could sit with their travelling companions. That equates to an estimated 38million seats.
More than 1,200 people have contacted the aviation watchdog to complain about being split up since The Mail began its investigation
Airlines are within their rights to charge for allocated seats, but if they do so it must be done in a fair, transparent way
The figures, revealed by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), expose the extent of the seat reservation scandal.
The Mail revealed two weeks ago how airlines are being investigated over claims that their computer systems deliberately split up families and friends when they book flights. It’s estimated that passengers pay up to £400million a year in extra fees to guarantee seats together.
Airlines say their computer systems randomly allocate seats depending on what is available and claim they aim to sit people on the same booking together.
Since the Mail’s story, hundreds of families have come forward to tell of their frustration at being seated apart.
Of the 13million groups affected, around one in four are thought to have flown with Ryanair, according to the CAA’s research
Some say they travelled on half-empty flights yet were still seated at opposite ends of the plane. Others are convinced that companies deliberately separate families because they know they will pay the extra to ensure their fellow travellers are not alone.
More than 1,200 people have contacted the aviation watchdog to complain about being split up since it began its investigation.
Father had to sit on his own on flight to the US
Joel, Sarah and Yasmin Combes
Joel Combes, 46, was unable to sit next to his wife and seven-year-old daughter Yasmin on a flight from Birmingham to California last May after he refused to pay an extra £25 to move seats.
When wife Sarah, 42, went to check in online, the plane was only three-quarters full but TUI’s system still sat Mr Combes away from his family.
He accused TUI of targeting families as they are more likely to pay to sit together.
Mr Combes, a lawyer from Peterborough, said: ‘It is all a way of getting more money out of passengers. They should scrap this extra charge.’
Martyn James, of complaints service Resolver, said: ‘It’s clear from the complaints we’re seeing that passengers feel that they’re forced to fork out for expensive seat reservations rather than risk having their families sat apart.
‘Surely if airlines give people an assurance that they’ll be sat together where possible or a warning if seats are booking up fast it would solve this problem immediately.
‘But if charging for seats is here to stay, the whole process needs to be far more transparent.’
Of the 13million groups affected, around one in four are thought to have flown with Ryanair, according to the CAA’s research.
Andrew Haines, its chief executive, said: ‘It is clear from our research and the response from the travelling public that airline seating practices are causing some confusion for consumers.
‘Airlines are within their rights to charge for allocated seats, but if they do so it must be done in a fair, transparent way.
‘Our review will be looking into how airlines decide where to seat passengers that have booked as part of a group and whether any airlines are pro-actively splitting up groups of passengers when, in fact, they could be sat together.
‘The Civil Aviation Authority will not hesitate to take any necessary enforcement action should it be required at the end of the review.’
A spokesman for Ryanair said it was co-operating with the CAA review and added: ‘Our policy is very clear for our customers and seats can be purchased from just £2 while children travelling in families get free allocated seats.’
A spokesman for TUI said: ‘We always try to seat customers travelling together next to each other wherever possible, with priority given to families travelling with children.
‘However, if a customer has chosen not to use the pre-booking service and their child is initially allocated a seat away from them it will be automatically re-assigned.’