Airlines Suspected of Fibbing About Seat Availability for Families

By Sean O'Neill
October 3, 2012
Courtesy <a href="" target="_blank">Augapfel/Flickr</a>

The airlines' latest now-you-see-it-now-you-don't sleight of hand—the Seat Assignment Shell Game—has prompted dozens of passengers to cry foul in online consumer forums.

Air travelers are finding it tougher than ever to book side-by-side seat assignments after they've purchased their plane tickets, meaning that couples and family members are often unable to sit together on flights.

Some fliers suspect that something shady is going on. The reason? When passengers finally board a flight, it sometimes turns out that there are far more unoccupied seats on the plane than the online seat maps had said there would be.

Travelers typically face the hassle of begging strangers to swap seats so that they can sit next to their loved ones. The inconvenience could have been avoided if airline seat maps had been accurate in the first place. When Budget Travel asked readers if something like this had happened to them, dozens said yes.

Here's the potentially outrageous part: Industry expert William McGee speculates in a USA Today article that airlines are pretending to have fewer seats available to lure people into splurging on upgraded "premium economy" seats.

For what it's worth, I suspect the same thing. I recently booked a pair of family members on a return flight to Newark from London on United. At the time of booking, said flight 919 had no side-by-side seats in economy class left that were available. But higher-price Economy Plus had one pair of seats together. When my family members boarded the plane, they discovered several pairs of seats were unoccupied in other rows, but flight attendants wouldn't let them switch and sit together until an hour into the flight. No doubt some customer probably saw the lack of side-by-side seats and paid extra for premium-economy seats to lock in a

guaranteed seating together.

On a practical note, travelers may want to take advantage of free services that notify travelers when desired seats come available, such as ExpertFlyer's Seat Alert and MySeatFinder, though they're far from perfect.

In the meantime, if the Seat Assignment Shell Game is a widespread problem, it may be the next frontier in the battle for flyers rights. Air travelers who come across shady behavior should report it using the online consumer complaint form at the Department of Transportation's website. Does such action matter? It certainly had a major effect in convincing the government to tighten the screws on airlines regarding long tarmac delays and compensation for excessively delayed flights.

For more on this topic, see William McGee's two-part series in USA Today.


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