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Making Sense of Airline Seating

We’ve said this before; airline protocol takes some getting used to. Perhaps they should offer classes? Complicated fare codes, layovers, and baggage fees aside, simply sitting on the aircraft encourages frustration with its surprising difficulty.

Seats are a finite resource, so airlines want each one to count. Easily the most lucrative part of the business, airline companies balance their various seat categories with hundreds of different rates to ensure a profit. In turn, this sometimes makes getting the seat(s) you want difficult.

So, what can you do? Well they say knowing is half the battle, so let’s take a moment and dig into the specifics of that chair 35,000 feet in the air. Know this though, a ticket really only ensures you get from Point A to Point B. It might be best to consider “how” and sometimes the “when” you get there as added perks.

Let’s start with a scenario. Assume you didn’t pay the full coach or first/business class fare but took advantage of a discounted fare. Don’t expect those lower cost fares to come with many privileges. Often you don’t even get to pick your seat; airlines assign you at check-in. That means you technically don’t have a seat until the day of your departure. Elites and frequent flyers receive upgrades and access to pricier seats, so airlines will block many seats for their use. Getting the seat you want on departure day could come down to luck, but sometimes the planets just don’t align in your favor. If you’re tall, it could be a cramped trip, or if you are traveling with associates or family, you might not see them until after you land. If these possibilities stress you out, airlines offer a few solutions.

Most airline booking sites eventually direct you to a seat reservation page. Here you’ll be able to select a seat well before you pack your bags, but if you’re not at a high enough level with the airline’s frequent flyer program, expect a fee. While reserving a seat might give you peace of mind knowing you secured a seat before take-off, it doesn’t necessarily open up the airplane with more options. Leg room costs extra. Airlines will often label “special” seats with more space, next to a window, or even random ones scattered around the economy section as preferred. These don’t offer the space and amenities of first/business class, but still cost more than your standard seat. If you want space to sprawl a bit more, this is maybe worth the cost. When it comes to keeping the family together, you might find many spots fall under this preferred category making you pay extra to keep family close. All these extras drive up that once cheap price.

Get a preview of your options with websites like They use customer reviews to rate the seats on your plane giving you advance warning if an attractive seat isn’t all that it seems.

Now you for sure, 100% have the seat you want right? You paid up after all. Well maybe, here’s the thing: even if you pay for better seats you can still be moved in certain circumstances. Seats are never guaranteed. Sound ominous? Well truthfully, airlines keep this option open in case they need to accommodate persons with disabilities or if a change in aircraft type occurs. If the plane is changed, it means a change in seating layout. The airline will shuffle you and you lose your reserved or preferred seat. You typically get a refund in cases like these, but that still leaves the original problem unsolved.

What can you do? The only recourse you can turn to in these circumstances is the airline. When you reserve a seat, make sure to call the airline or check online to confirm, and then again a week or so prior. This way if changes do occur, you’re able to adapt. If you’re having issues with seating, check at the gate before boarding. This is when elites and loyalty members are upgraded to fill seats in first/business class leaving some seats in your section vacant. Sometimes the desk agents can relocate you.

Remember again that airlines only sell you a ticket from Point A to Point B. As long as they get you there, they’ve fulfilled their end of the deal. Buying the cheapest ticket means fewer privileges, standing last in line to board, and even being bumped if rarer conditions are met (with compensation offered by the carrier). Consider joining a frequent flyer program if you travel more than once a year. The more loyalty you build with an airline, the more they’ll want to keep you as a customer plus you get the added perks that come with the program.

In the end, its best to remember that flying is means to an end. Even if you have a difficult trip, just remember your destination. Now go enjoy your vacation.


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