Should airlines charge more for a seat assignment?

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Sometimes, when a traveler asks for help, your best response is to listen.

That’s what I did when I heard from Nicholas Gilbert, who just wanted to sit next to his wife on an upcoming American Airlines flight.

He’d booked two tickets to Europe via American and connecting to Lufthansa and Swiss. The itineraries were not connected. He says he chose AA.com because on his last flight, he’d booked through Travelocity, and couldn’t get pre-assigned seats. An American Airlines supervisor blamed the online agency for blocking his seats, he says.

So Gilbert — who says he is a frequent flier on American — obediently booked through AA.com.

And guess what? He couldn’t reserve a seat next to his wife.

“I called Lufthansa and Swiss the same day I called AA for other flights to get a seat, and they had no problem assigning me one,” he says.

What’s the problem? American wanted him to pay more for a pre-assigned seat. That’s a hot topic in Washington, with the latest Transportation Department rulemaking suggesting airlines should disclose these fees at the time they’re displayed.

A brief, polite email to the airline resulted in the following form response:

Thank you for contacting us. We are sorry you became concerned when you were not able to obtain free prereserved seat for your upcoming trip.

At the time of your request, all remaining seats were either reserved for other customers, “blocked” to allow our airport personnel to handle unexpected seating issues that may arise on the day of departure, or are part of our Preferred Seats or Main Cabin Extra travel options.

With the Preferred Seats product, customers have the option to purchase seat assignments in the first few rows of coach, as well as bulkhead and other desirable seating.

With Main Cabin Extra, customers can purchase a seat in the front of the Main Cabin with up to six inches of additional legroom to stretch out and relax.

The availability of specific seats may change daily, even hourly as other customers alter their travel plans.

If your free seating choice doesn’t become available prior to your trip, and you elect not to purchase a Preferred or Main Cabin Extra seat, you will receive an automatically-assigned seat at no charge at check-in as early as 24 hours before departure.

Thank you again for contacting us. We appreciate your business and look forward to welcoming you aboard.

Thank you for choosing American.

You’ve gotta love that form letter. Makes it sound like you’re asking for the world when you want a reserved seat — something that came standard with every legacy airline reservation, until it didn’t.

Gilbert is frustrated.

“Their seat policy seems so ridiculous and confusing even their own supervisors don’t understand it, as I’ve been given a few different stories now,” he says. “I’m asking to sit next to my wife, I’m not a family of six. It’s only two seats — and one of them is a middle seat.”

American was basically challenging Gilbert to a game of “chicken.” The airline apparently wanted him to pay for a middle seat; but, if he waited long enough, it would have to give him a seat.

Who would blink first?

This isn’t a civil way to fly. If you’re traveling with someone — especially young children — you shouldn’t be forced to spend more money to be near your family. This is extortion, pure and simple — at least it is from my perspective.

My strategy was to wait. As the date of Gilbert’s flight drew closer, and it became clear that he wouldn’t pay the ransom, the airline would have to eventually offer him a seat.

Sure enough, shortly before the flight, I received the following message from Gilbert:

It appears their system automatically assigned my wife and I seats in row 8 (of 18, and 1-5 seem to be first class/premium seats) once it hit 24 hours before the flight.

Funny how the supervisor held firm and refused to assign a seat ahead of time (without charging over 100 percent the cost of the tickets) despite the large number of open seats.

Heaven forbid they give away two seats together in the back of the plane and have a group of 50 all buy premium tickets at the last minute and have one less aisle seat to choose from.

They see seat selection as a cash cow for themselves, although I’m not sure how that’s going to work in the long run when I’m booking my next flight and come across two airlines with similar fares and select the other one due to their seating policy.

If someone books through your site, is a loyal flier with you, follows the instructions you told them to be able to select a seat (which were untrue), books through your loyalty program, well in advance, calls and speaks with a supervisor, isn’t it just easier for everyone to give two seats together?

I think Gilbert just answered his own question. I’m happy he won this round of “chicken.”

How many other travelers will have to play the same game before it ends?

Should airlines charge more for a seat assignment?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at . Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • Carver Clark Farrow

    If you go to a high end steak house, they charge you for vegetables and the potato.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    The difference is substantial. Consider, 2 people who want to travel together. Under the AA system, they can get to seats together without paying a penny more if seats are available in regular economy, which, incidentally is disclosed prior to buying the ticket.

    If AA were charging for seat assignments, then they would have to pay to sit together or roll the dice.

    In the former case, the couple can guarantee sitting together without an additional fee, in the latter case they cannot.

  • Hanope

    Well, it was Lufthansa about 4 years ago and last year was Jet Airways. Now in both cases, I had to call the airline directly to buy the tickets, due to other issues, so maybe that was the reason I couldn’t get a seat assignment, although I was told that I couldn’t do early check in, online check in or reserve a seat because the airline was required to confirm/see the passports first, and thus I had to wait until we got to the airport.

  • mythsayer

    It nearly happened to me with my daughter. I had assigned seats together. They were there when I checked in and got my boarding pass. By the time I we arrived on our other flight ( it was a connecting flight), they’d taken my confirmed seats. They were dead set on not giving us seats together. I told them to find someone to feed, change, and babysit my 8 month old. Magically they got us together… 10 minutes before we boarded.

  • mythsayer

    Ummm… Do you want to care for my four year old? She’ll talk your ear off. I’d happily let her sit my you as long as you don’t get pissed at me for her behavior. She’s a decent kid, but she is four. But i am responsible for her and I shouldn’t have to pay more just to do what I’m required by law to do (care for her).

  • mythsayer

    No. Just no. As I said above, I’m legally responsible for my child. I should not have to pay more to make sure she behaves. No one else has to pay more, so if I don’t, then you can babysit. It’s not my problem at that point. I don’t need to sit next to my husband. THAT isn’t problem to solve. But my four year old… Or when she was a baby. We shouldn’t be forced to pay more when you’re not. Functionally, it IS being forced. You’d complain if she was by herself by you, ergo… I have no choice.

  • norm

    You are kidding right? When did it become a “perk” to be able to sit next to your children on a flight? Are we going to start charging different prices for the aisle seat, the middle seat, and the window seat? I’m really curious as to why, when I purchase a “seat” on a flight, I have to play russian roulette on where I’m going to end up sitting? I refuse to fly on a airline that has to break up families in the name of extortion. It’s just plain crazy. I’m sending my daughter in law on a 8 hour flight tonight with a 3 year old and a infant. I suppose it would be okay for American to put the 3 year old several rows away from mom unless she pays more money to sit together? Enough! Congress has to stop this insanity!

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    I do not recall mentioning families, but respectfully, none of that is accurate. American will reseat people to ensure that minors under a certain age are seated next to a parent or appropriately older sibling.

    Also, irregular ops notwithstanding, American displays seats maps prior to purchase. If you won’t like the available seat options, choose another flight.

    Suppose the flight has one coach seat and several business class seat. What would you do? You’d either buy 2 business class seats or take a different flight. How is this different?

    And why not charge different prices for different seats if they are more valuable. Otherwise its basically you saying you want the better, i.e. more valuable seat, but don’t want to pay for it.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    AA gives seats assigned prior to purchase. You can even hold the seat for 24 hours, you will still get a seat assignment.

  • TonyA_says

    I won’t babysit your kid. I do have rights, too.
    If you don’t want to pay the fee to get pre-assigned seats that is your problem, not mine.

  • TonyA_says

    Why is your kid my problem?
    Most airlines do not allow 4 year olds to travel alone.
    Therefore you or another adult will have to accompany your kid if you want her to fly. That is your responsibility or your kid does not fly.
    But the airline rules use the term accompanied and not the term seating together.
    If you feel that your kid will terrorize other passengers then it is YOUR responsibility not to make that happen. Stop blaming the rest of the passengers and accept your responsibility. If you have to spend money they do it – that is part of your responsibility.

  • TonyA_says

    I was wondering if I could get you to comment on this:
    bit dot ly/1pTDCUB

    Airline sex discrimination policy controversy

  • Raven_Altosk

    That’s what you call “hysteria” and “PC-tarded.” If every single male flying is a pedo, then you better shut down the airlines now…

  • LeeAnneClark

    Okay Tony, I apologized earlier for my comments, but this comment of yours almost makes me want to take it back. Seriously, you were making some decent points…but now you’ve gone totally off the rails.

    To answer you question…my kid is NOT your problem. My kid is MY problem. And I want to keep it that way. The airlines have no right to separate my child from me and stick him with strangers, making him THEIR problem.

    See how that works?

    Do you REALLY consider it acceptable for a parent to be separated from their 4-yr-old? And if they are, and the child is seated with strangers, you blame the PARENT if the child “terrorizes” other passengers? Earth to Tony…you say you are a parent, do you really not remember what they were like at 4 years old? Do you really believe that any 4-yr-old would be able to be perfectly charming and unobtrusive for hours seated among strangers? And if they are not, you feel they are “terrorizing” and it’s the parents’ fault?

    Okay, so let’s say you DO believe that about 4 year olds. (Which is ridiculous, but at this point nothing is surprising to me). How about 3 year olds? How about 2 year olds? How about 18 month olds? At what point would you say the airlines really do need to seat the child with his parent? Do you consider it the parents’ responsibility to teach toddlers how to behave on a plane if they are separated and stuck between strangers? And if the toddler is not capable of quietly behaving among strangers for the duration of the flight, that the parents have no right to take that child with them?

    Please go back and read your last comment. And maybe read the comment to which you are responding. I’m hoping you will begin to see how your comments are coming across. And it’s not just me, Tony…I have showed your comments to several other parents just to do a sense check, and they were just as shocked as I was.

  • Mel65

    Southwest doesn’t fly out of our airport so I’ve never flown them, but SERIOUSLY? This sort of nonsense occurs and the FAs allow it? It sounds like an awful process. Someone saying “No you can’t sit here so neener neener” would bring out my latent (but bubbling just below the surface) violent tendencies!

  • Mel65

    On a flight from Dallas to Chicago, the FAs announced half a dozen times that since we were a little late there were several people with tight connections and requested that those who were at their final destination or had more time please allow those passenger to deplane first. Nope. Everyone did the usual stand up as soon as wheels hit the ground and crowd into the aisle. One poor woman was in tears because she was back in aisle 33 or 34 and just KNEW she wasn’t going to make it. Jerks. I irritated the guys in the middle and window seat beside me because I didn’t jump into the aisle. I asked if they had connections and they said “No” so I said, “then what’s the hurry, there are people who do.” They looked at me like I had 2 heads. I do NOT get the “Where I need to be is so much more important than anyone else and I can’t spare 5 minutes to be polite” attitude that so prevalent.

  • Crissy

    I’m often traveling by myself so as long as I’m not in a middle seat for a long flight I’m not too fussy. But, I do find the whole paying for a seat assignment distasteful for a number of reasons. As a solo traveler, if it is a longer flight, the price of the seat usually isn’t that big of a deal and I’ll pay the money. But, if I was traveling with friends or family – that can be A LOT of money to guarantee being with the person I travel with. You end up pissing off the people who are hardest to seat (groups/families) and make it easier for the single travelers who are usually just paying to keep a preferred window or aisle seat but the row doesn’t matter. BUT, if I pay money for my seat, the only way I’m moving is if the airline is refunding my money or putting me in a better seat.

    In the end the ones who get really punished are the gate agents and flight attendants who have to try and keep people happy in the plane. Or the families who pay exhorbinant amounts of money for something the airline can easily control.