Families have just a one-in-17,500 chance of sitting together on a Ryanair flight unless they pay extra.
And today, Money Mail can reveal that the airline has also hiked its seat surcharge prices to as much as £15 each.
Many airlines, most notably Ryanair, force passengers to pay an upfront charge to guarantee seats next to each other. If you don’t choose this option, a computer automatically assigns seats for you.
So the chances of two parents with one teenage child being automatically given seats in a row of three on a Ryanair flight are so slim that there is a better chance of them winning £100 in the National Lottery.
Sitting comfortably? Budget carrier Ryanair has also hiked its seat surcharge prices to as much as £15 each
Parents flying with children under 12 are forced to pay to reserve a seat and then up to four children will be given a seat next to them for free.
Airlines are currently being investigated by aviation watchdog the Civil Aviation Authority over claims that they deliberately split up families and friends travelling together in a racket that costs passengers up to £400 million in extra seat charges.
Many passengers complain that when they check in or board the aircraft, they find they have been seated apart from their travelling companions even though there are rows of seats available together.
The aviation watchdog’s initial research found that, on average, one-in-five passengers are split up. But with Ryanair, its study indicates 35 per cent of travellers are separated – more than any other airline.
Shortly after Money Mail revealed these findings, Ryanair hiked its seat charges to £4 per passenger per flight or £15 for extra legroom – up from £2 or £11 respectively.
This would cost a family of three making a return journey £24 – or £90 if they want extra legroom.
Ryanair says it offers customers a 25 per cent sale on many routes so seats can be purchased for £3, although it also warns on its website that fees could also be higher on selected routes.
Probe: Airlines are currently being investigated by aviation watchdog the CAA over claims that they deliberately split up families and friends
Ryanair also says that passengers are allocated seats at random when they check in and that the algorithm used to assign seats is different on each flight, depending on demand from customers.
Figures compiled for Money Mail show the odds of a family of three and a couple being seated together on a Ryanair Boeing Next Generation 737-800 plane with 189 seats.
There are more than six million ways of seating three people randomly on a plane with 189 seats and 378 ways of seating these three people together, according to Jonquil Lowe, senior lecturer in economics and personal finance at The Open University.
This means there is a one-in-17,578 – or 0.006 per cent – chance that a family of three would be seated in a row, her figures show.
Meanwhile, there are 35,532 ways of seating two people randomly in 189 seats and 252 ways to seat a couple together, she says.
This leaves a one-in-141 chance of a couple finding themselves seated side-by-side.
Ryanair also says that passengers are allocated seats at random when they check in and that the algorithm used to assign seats is different on each flight, depending on demand
If customers consider seats across the aisle from one another as together, the odds are slightly better: one-in-8,859 for a family of three and one-in-113 for a couple.
These figures assume the plane is empty at the time the customer checks in. The odds would vary if some passengers had already selected seats as there would be fewer seats to choose from.
Martyn James, of complaints service Resolver, says: ‘Families will be outraged to find that they have more chance of winning a lottery prize than being seated together. Enough is enough.’
Nurse Jane Sanderson, 31, has been split up from both her friends and her boyfriend on Ryanair flights in the past 12 months.
In June, she and five friends booked return flights from Liverpool to Alicante for £150 each.
When they boarded the flight they found they had been put on opposite parts of the plane despite a sea of empty seats.
Jane says: ‘Two of my friends were sitting in a row of empty seats. Another was sat next to a man who had been separated from his wife, so we swapped with him.’
Then when travelling to Tenerife with her boyfriend Alastair Taylor, 41, in September the couple were again separated and had to pay £20 to get seats together.
Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary. The airline says it offers customers a 25 per cent sale on many routes so seats can be purchased for £3
She says: ‘It’s frustrating because I’ve flown with Ryanair about 20 times, and this hasn’t happened before.’
Jon Albutt, 30, had booked a romantic city break with girlfriend Sophie Evans, 26, to Dublin last month.
When they went to check in online four days before their flight, the plane was barely a quarter full. Yet Ryanair’s booking system still allocated the couple seats that were three rows apart.
The same happened when Jon tried to reserve seats for the return flight. It would have cost the couple £24 to sit together on both legs, almost doubling the cost of their £30 flight.
Jon, a shop manager, says: ‘The person in front of me was looking over their shoulder for their friend a few rows back. So obviously we weren’t the only ones.’
Abby Withers, 30, was told she would have to pay more than the cost of the flight to sit next to her husband, Adam, when travelling to visit the Christmas markets in Brunnen, Switzerland, in December last year.
The couple had found last-minute return flights with Ryanair for £10 each.
When they checked in online, Abby discovered they had been seated in separate rows.
Abby, a finance analyst from London, says: ‘It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s the principle.’
A spokeswoman for Ryanair says: ‘Our seating policy is very clear for our customers and seats can be purchased from just £3.
‘Customers who do not wish to purchase a seat are randomly allocated a seat, free of charge. This is entirely a matter of customer choice.’
Additional reporting: Miles Dilworth