An investigation by Which? Travel has exposed real concerns that Ryanair's seating policy, which only guarantees to seat passengers together if they pay extra, could obstruct an evacuation as loved ones try to reach one another in an emergency.
Which? Travel asked the 10 most popular airlines that operate paid-for seating options to confirm that they seat groups, couples and families together where there is space to do so. All the airlines confirmed that they did, except for Wizz Air and Ryanair.
And analysis of 3,357 economy passengers' experiences found that Ryanair is the airline most likely to split passengers up. Just 46% of Ryanair passengers who had not paid for a seat, were seated together. Compare that with 73% on Wizz Air, or 85% and higher for the other eight airlines analysed.
But failing to seat travelling companions together is not just irritating, it's also dangerous. According to European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) rules, airlines must be able to evacuate the cabin in less than 90 seconds. Any longer, and the cabin environment can become lethal.
But as Dai Whittingham, Chief Executive of the UK Flight Safety Committee told Which?: 'In an emergency situation anyone will try to reach loved ones, even if it involves clambering over others, impeding the evacuation and putting lives at risk'. Any airline that splits travelling companions up, he said, is 'putting its profits ahead of passenger safety'.
Ryanair told Which? that it 'fully complies with all EU safety regulations'. Wizz Air said 'the safety of our passengers is always our number one priority'.
The full investigation appears in the March 2019 issue of Which? Travel. With no advertising, we produce independent and unbiased reporting on the travel issues that matter, from dodgy holiday deals to insurers that don't pay out. Find out more about
The first airline to charge for seat selection was easyJet in 2012. The other no-frills airlines soon followed suit. But it remained an optional extra, aimed at those who wanted extra legroom.
But in 2017, passengers on Ryanair began to suspect that the airline was purposefully separating them. The airline stubbornly maintained that it hadn't changed its seating policy and that all non-paid for seats were randomly allocated.
That was until the director of statistical consultancy at Oxford University, Dr Jennifer Rogers, tested its seating system.
She booked four groups of four people on Ryanair flights and found all 16 passengers were allocated middle seats. She concluded that the chance of this happening 'randomly' was one in 540,000,000. Statistically you would be 10 times more likely to win the national lottery.
Following this revelation, Ryanair admitted that it withholds window and aisle seats from 'random seat' customers, because passengers are more willing to pay for these seats.
It's no wonder that Ryanair is keen to encourage passengers to pay for seats. In the summer of 2018, Ryanair raked in £1.1bn in ancillary revenues - income from extras such as seat selection and baggage charges.
Ryanair is not the only airline to profit from seat selection. The most popular short-haul airlines from Jet2 to Tui, and even some long-haul, including BA, charge extra to reserve a seat.
However, paying for seat selection with most airlines is a waste of money, Which? Travel's research found. Of those who refused to pay extra to select a seat, 86% were seated together anyway. The table below shows the airlines that are most likely to seat you together, whether or not you pay extra:
So why do passengers pay for something they can usually get for free? Partly it's because policies are confusing. Some airlines allow passengers to select a seat for free when you book (including Air France, KLM and Virgin Atlantic), others allow it at check in. And many more have tiered economy fare bundles, some of which include seating. Prices too are confusing, varying by route and demand.
The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has said it is 'concerned about how transparent and easy it is to compare prices and make an informed buying decision'.
It estimates that UK passengers are spending up to £175m 'unnecessarily' on seat selection each year.
Nearly one in five parents pays extra for seat reservations when travelling with children. Yet CAA guidelines state that airlines should 'aim to sit parents close to their children' at no extra cost.
Some airlines (including BA, Thomas Cook and Tui) do guarantee that children under 12 will always be seated with at least one adult. But others (including easyJet, Flybe, Jet2 and Norwegian) say that while they will try to seat children with adults, they can't guarantee it.
Ryanair ignores these guidelines and forces families to pay to sit together. It is compulsory for at least one adult in the group to pay to select a seat - they can then reserve seats (for free) for up to four children.
The rules concerning disability are far better enforced. The airline must provide a disabled passenger flying out of the EU (or into the EU on an EU airline) with appropriate seating, and an adjacent seat for anyone providing assistance.
Yet, according to the CAA, that passengers with mobility issues pay for allocated seating in the same proportion as those without. In many cases, passengers are paying for a service that they are entitled to, by law, for free.
Which? Travel found that information regarding special requirements could be more prominently displayed. It is often buried in terms and conditions or FAQs.