Assigned Airline Seats Are a Scam

As Ann Coulter learned recently, you don’t always get what you want—especially when it comes to airline seats. She had booked a seat with extra legroom on her recent Delta flight, only to arrive and see that flight attendants wanted her to sit in a different seat with extra legroom. Coulter launched an aggressive tweetstorm against the airline, in which she certainly over-reacted. Don’t cry for Ann Coulter. Eventually, Delta reimbursed her with a miserly $30.
The moral of the story is: even when you pay extra for a preferred seat, there are no guarantees that the seat will be available on the day you fly. Assigned seating is a scam.
The issue is a serious one. Airlines started charging more for preferred seats—often $30-$50 more for extra legroom—in 2010, the Wall Street Journal reports. But airlines did not update their procedures at airport gates to match the marketing. That means passengers’ expectations often don’t match up with reality.
One Cook Travel executive reserved seats for his wife and two kids to sit together on a recent flight from New York to Costa Rica. But they got bumped to make room for two airline employees who were trying to get home at the end of their shift. The wife and kids were split up across the plane.
“I’ve seen pilots move passengers around to make room for their concubines, unofficially,” said Fabrizio, former gate agent from New York.
Historically, gate agents were the problem solvers: re-arranging last-minute seat assignments to accommodate all passengers. They tried to seat families together, take care of important passengers, and squeeze in unhappy travelers from canceled flights. But today, most airlines use computer programs to handle priority seating. This removes to human touch entirely, and the results are often problematic.
“When I made my reservation I was sure I had selected seats,” complained Karen Parker Feld, a passenger who was recently affected by this issue. “However, when the confirmation arrived, no seats were listed.” It turned out that the airline was concealing her seat assignment to see if she would pay more for an upgrade.
“Airlines are the poster children of poor customer service,” chimed in fellow passenger, Derrick Jeffers. “Airlines believe they can do anything and you just have to live with it.”
Dr. Dao, the United passenger who was forcibly removed from his seat earlier this year, found this out the hard way.
Airlines protect themselves from legal backlash from such fishy tactics with this line in their terms and conditions: “Seat assignments are not guaranteed.”
The good news is that you can usually get a refund if you complain a lot. For more information, check out this column at the Huffington Post: “Why Americans Hate Their Airlines.”
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About Blake Fleetwood

Blake Fleetwood Blake Fleetwood was formerly on the staff of The New York Times and has written for The New York Times Magazine, New York Magazine, The New York Daily News, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the Village Voice, Atlantic and the Washington Monthly on a number of issues. He was born in Santiago, Chile and moved to New York City at the age of three. He graduated from Bard College and did graduate work in political science and comparative politics at Columbia University. He has also taught politics at New York University. He can be reached at
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