U.K. airlines’ practice of charging for assigned seats is being scrutinized by regulators amid concerns the policy — which adds as much as 390 million pounds ($550 million) to ticket prices a year — is confusing.

An increase in the number of complaints by passengers traveling in groups who are forced to pay to sit together has prompted an examination of “whether consumers are being treated fairly, and whether pricing policies are transparent,” the U.K. Civil Aviation Authority said Saturday in a statement.

“Airline seating practices are clearly causing some confusion for consumers,” said Andrew Haines, chief executive officer of the CAA. “Our research shows that some consumers are paying to sit together when, in fact, they might not need to.”

As part of the review airlines will need to provide information on how they seat passengers who booked as part of a group and if any airlines are “pro-actively splitting up groups of passengers” when they don’t need to, Haines said. The CAA “will not hesitate to take any necessary enforcement action should it be required at the end of the review,” he added.

Airlines U.K., a trade body for registered carriers, didn’t respond Saturday to phone or email messages left outside normal office hours.

Surprise Charges

The airlines’ watchdog released research showing that of more than 4,000 consumers who flew as a part of a group last year, 10 percent were told only after they booked that they would have to pay extra to guarantee seats with their group. A further 10 percent said they weren’t made aware of such charges. Almost half the respondents believed the airline would automatically assign their seats together, the agency said.

The findings also show consumers have a better chance of being seated together without charge with some airlines than with others. The uncertainty on whether their group will be split up by the airline is driving consumers to pay for an allocated seat, the cost of which totals 160 million to 390 million pounds per year in the U.K., the research showed.

Of those paying, two-thirds spent from 5 pounds to 30 pounds per seat, and 8 percent paid more than 30 pounds, the agency said.

“Our work will consider whether or not these charges are fair and transparent,” Haines said.

Other than allocated seating, the CAA will be conduct reviews on improving access to air travel for people with disabilities, and ticketing terms and conditions this year.

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Photo Credit: Andrew Haines, chief executive officer of the CAA. Bloomberg