Why do passengers always seem to lose in these airline seat reservation games?
The airlines have begun unbundling their airfares. Many seats now require paid reservations. On some flights, I have seen every aisle seat and every window seat tagged with an extra fee. They range anywhere from $25-$43 and more. Airline seating rules are an airline seat reservation game mess.
We all know about the premium seats such as Economy Plus on United or Delta Comfort. On American Airlines, most of the seats that cost extra are merely in the front of the plane or are exit rows, aisle, or window seats.
To a point, airlines have every right to charge for airline seating. However, the Department of Transportation (DOT) has a rule that requires airlines to advertise prices, including all mandatory taxes and fees, meaning that every passenger flying is guaranteed a seat for any tickets purchased.
Now the question becomes, “When do the airlines have to release seats for assignment to passengers who choose not to pay reservation fees for specific seats?” These have become airline seat reservation games.
Airline seat reservation games
On a recent flight to Rome, Italy, American Airlines had still not released its aisle and window seats as late as four hours before takeoff for a Philadelphia to Rome flight. Two passengers in the Admiral’s Club were trying to shift their seats and were told that all aisle seats were saved for elite passengers or those who want to pay extra.
They wanted to get two seats together along the windows on an Airbus configured 2-4-2.
I assured them that they would not be any worse off if they kept the two separate seats that had already been assigned to them. They then asked at the boarding gate. I couldn’t imagine that AA would be selling specific seats as late as boarding. That would come too close to a violation of the full-fare advertising rule.
Eventually, they were seated at the last minute in the bulkhead seats in seats A and B. Perfect — waiting got them the airline seating they wanted. But, why did the airline put them through so much anguish? Basically, for no reason other than airlines wanted to squeeze an extra $25 from each of them?
When should airlines release seats held for elite frequent fliers in seat reservation games?
This adventure with these two frequent fliers begs the following question: When should airlines release the seats that were held back for elite fliers and those who want a specific seat or those that can be pressured into paying based on ignorance?
Should all seats be released 24 hours before a flight? Perhaps, 12 hours? Or should it be four hours?
I have always thought these arbitrarily blocked seats would be released for assignment by gate agents and telephone agents 24 hours before takeoff. I am wrong. Seat reservation games rules seem to be changing. And, as I checked around with airline agents, there is no standardized time frame for releasing these seats.
The airlines don’t even clearly tell travelers that they do not have to pay for a seat reservation. Every passenger is guaranteed a seat unless the plane is oversold. This is part of the current seat reservation game. Then, a new set of rules comes into play — denied boarding compensation.
Airlines playing seat hanky-panky is out of control
- This seat-blocking hanky-panky is becoming a misleading and deceptive practice.
- Airlines withhold more seats than elite frequent fliers with reservations on flights.
- Airlines do not inform passengers that they do not need to purchase a seat reservation, even when all seats are marked for an extra charge.
- Families are especially harmed because they may think that they have to pay for a reserved seat to sit with a minor.
Airlines seem to be begging for more regulations. They always present economic studies and white papers claiming that the market will take care of all problems, but then their actions, taken in lockstep with supposed competitors, belies their claims.
Should the airlines be required to tell passengers that seat reservations are not necessary? Aren’t airlines required to release all unassigned seats for assignment 24 hours prior to takeoff? Should families with minors be guaranteed that they can sit together?
Airlines are racing to the bottom in terms of passenger protections
It seems obvious that the airlines have no anti-consumer governor on their actions. They seem to push every consumer rule to the edge, whether it be the disclosure of code-share flights or airline seating. Their actions only beget more rules and regulations.
What happened to the days of customer service, honest advertising, and full disclosure? The airlines may not have to be regulated when it comes to the economics of flying, but they certainly need a strong hand when it comes to customer service and transparency. When the market fails, regulators need to step in.
READ ALSO ON TRAVELERS UNITED BLOG
Why “guaranteed late arrival” isn’t actually guaranteed
Should airlines and cruise lines require proof of vaccination to travel?
Charlie Leocha is the President of Travelers United. He has been working in Washington, DC, for the past 14 years with Congress, the Department of Transportation, and industry stakeholders on travel issues. He was the first consumer representative to the Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protections appointed by the Secretary of Transportation from 2012 through 2018.