Thursday, July 27, 2017

That Airline Seat You Paid for Isn’t Yours: Frustrated fliers discover that paying for a preferred seat on a flight guarantees them nothing

The Wall Street Journal 
By Scott McCartney
Updated July 26, 2017 1:37 p.m. ET

If you buy an assigned seat at a theater, sports or concert venue, you get the seat you picked. But an assigned seat on an airline is radically different: Every so often, you don’t get it, even when you pay extra for it. Premium-seating fees guarantee nothing.

It’s happened to families who see their children reassigned rows away from their parents. It’s happened to single travelers when airline computers automatically shuffle seats on full flights. And it famously happened to political commentator Ann Coulter, who erupted in a Twitter tirade earlier in July after Delta moved her from a preferred aisle seat to a window seat in the same extra-legroom row. Delta roared back, calling her out for attacking employees and the airline over what was at best a minor inconvenience.

Airlines started placing price tags on particular seats—letting fliers pay an ancillary fee for a preferred seat, often with extra legroom—in about 2010. But they didn’t really change their procedures at airport gates to match the marketing. That means passengers’ expectations often don’t match up with reality.

Good gate agents are skilled puzzle-solvers who historically have moved people around liberally. They still have wide latitude despite the seat-assignment advance sales. (In Ms. Coulter’s case, Delta said an agent made a mistake while trying to help another customer. It refunded her $30 fee for the preferred seat.)

Agents try to seat families together, take care of VIPs, accommodate passengers bumped from first class by air marshals, find seats for high-fare or top-tier fliers and squeeze in passengers from canceled flights. Airlines swap planes for particular trips, triggering shuffling of seats when replacement planes have different seating configurations.

When most seats on a plane were similar, passengers knew seat assignments were fluid. Many tried to sweet-talk their way to exit rows or even first class. But now passengers think they can buy the rights to a specific seat. If 15F costs $32 extra and you buy it, you think you own 15F for that flight.

Airlines say that legally, you don’t. They can sell you one thing and deliver something else because the terms and conditions on seat purchases give them discretion. United and American use the same wording in their terms and conditions: “Seat assignments are not guaranteed.” Delta says it can reassign seats, paid or not, “at any time, even after boarding of the aircraft, for operational, safety or security reasons. The final decision resides with the ground staff and operating crew on the day of the flight.”

Airlines say they attempt to assign the same or similar seat type and location when they make changes. They also try to keep traveling companions together when they are booked in the same reservation. (Tip: If you are traveling together on separate passenger records, call ahead and ask the airline to link the two records.)

Delta says it’s encouraging agents to confer with customers and get consent before making a seating change. American says it’s studying ways to address what it recognizes is a source of frustration for travelers.

Doug Greenberg, a co-owner of a San Diego storage business, got separated from his 9-year-old son on a June 24 United flight even though they had confirmed seats together. (His wife and infant were on a separate passenger record.) United substituted a larger plane for a Houston-to-Jamaica leg of the trip and the family was scattered.

When he asked United agents why they seated a child alone when they had the age in the passenger record, the agents blamed an automated system. “This is really just a complete lack of thoughtfulness for the customer’s needs,” Mr. Greenberg says. “A 9-year-old should never be taken and seated in another section of the plane.”

A United spokeswoman says the airline regrets it was unable to seat the Greenbergs together.

Jim Hatch, a Philadelphia consultant, booked a trip to Tampa, Fla., for himself, his wife and an adult daughter with Down syndrome. He paid extra for preferred seats on American so they’d be sure to sit together. In an emergency, his daughter would need assistance.

It turned out the March flight was switched from an A320 to a smaller A319, and American told him seats would be assigned at the gate. The seats were in the last row, where legroom is tighter, but together. He checked on the return flights a week later and discovered they no longer had any seats on that flight, let alone their paid preferred seats. When seats were assigned, they were not together, but a gate agent reseated them to three seats together in the last row again.

“It’s tremendously frustrating,” Mr. Hatch says. American refunded the full cost of the seat fee, $121, after he complained, and they each got 5,000 miles.

American spokesman Josh Freed says the airline reserves a few seats—often the last row, among others—on all flights for gate agents to assign so they can keep families together after changes like aircraft switches or canceled flights.

Lisa Jadwin of Rochester, N.Y., suffered what she calls a “bait and switch” twice on one round trip to San Francisco on Delta. The college English professor selected flights with available Comfort Plus seats. The seats got changed on one flight west to San Francisco and again on one of her return flights east. No extra legroom; not even a seat assignment on one flight.

Ms. Jadwin’s husband, Steve Derne, complained to Delta about his wife’s seating shuffle and received an apology, a refund of $69 for Comfort Plus upgrades and 7,500 miles for her account. He thought a refund should be automatic and quick, not requiring a customer complaint.

Ms. Jadwin says her return trip with a connection in Minneapolis was especially stressful. Not having a seat on the connecting flight meant three hours of wondering if she’d be stranded in the Twin Cities. “They gave no explanation and I had a confirmed seat assignment,” she says. “Why does this keep happening?”

Delta says Ms. Jadwin’s assigned seats were taken away by an automated process that was attempting to seat several passengers for full flights. On the return to Rochester, the system was actually attempting to upgrade her to first class, a spokesman says, “but ultimately didn’t.”


  1. "It's tremendously frustrating" encapsulates the entire customer disservice experience with airlines. Their contracts of carriage are 50-70 pages of dense legalese meant to cover the airline in all circumstances, usually to the detriment of the passenger. "High compliance burdens for thee but not for me" is the general rule.

  2. I fly commercial when I have to and only when I have to.

    As a young man, I recall taking my first business trips during the early years of de-regulation. I was a Million Mile TWA and 300k American passenger.

    I often had three seats to myself on late night flights, as carriers had no idea how to forecast demand and fell all over themselves with perquisites to try to attract passengers.

    You could arrive at the airport 30 minutes before your flight, get upgraded to 1st class if it was an off-peak flight, and eat real food.

    Now, domestic flights have all the charm of a Somali pirate ship.


  3. ...and these are the businesses which want to have oversight of Privatized ATC.

    Just think about the smaller general aviation aircraft needing flight following through busy airspace. How often will they get bumped or ignored altogether? How many fees will the "non-profit" (which is a falsehood) system nickle and dime Joe Pilot just to get vectors around weather?

  4. "The airline regrets..."

    A constant refrain.

    The truth is that airlines do not have to satisfy customers - they only have to avoid being significantly worse than the competition in order to prosper (and United gave everybody else huge leeway to mess up).

  5. Some years ago when I was traveling with my family to a job interview the airline tried to scatter us around. My eldest was 8 at the time, but incredibly self-possessed and articulate, so I was actually not furious about her sitting with strangers, but they weren't even going to put our 4-year-old with a parent. So I told the gate agent to tell the person she was sitting next to that our younger daughter didn't get airsick often, but if she turns and looks at them in a funny way they have about 1/2 second to deal with projectile vomiting. They suddenly ensured each child was sitting with a parent....

  6. I wonder if anyone has studied WHY that is the case? How is it that airlines get away with treating customers significantly worse than any other service industry? Passengers are treated like cattle with no respect whatsoever from the airlines. There is a severe disconnect between their advertising and reality. They may pretend to treat you well with lines like "fly the friendly skies" but once you're there, it's more like "shut up and get onboard."

  7. I have found Virgin Atlantic the best airline I have ever traveled on. My husband, 10 year old daughter, and I flew to London Hethrow in 2000. Coach had comfortable seats, amenities usually reserved for First Class such as eye masks, socks, etc., and for the children, a backpack loaded with activities to keep her amused. When she accidentally left that backpack on a double-Decker bus and it couldn't be retrieved, we called the airline and told them how much she loved that backpack and was devestated by it's loss. There was a new backpack waiting for her when we arrived back home in the States. Some airlines do believe in customer service.