Airline Seats Available for Elite Fliers Only

July 12, 2013 5:42 AM

Airline Seats Available for Elite Fliers Only
Most passengers don’t get the full picture on open seating until the day before they fly

By SCOTT MCCARTNEY

When airline customers try to choose seats while purchasing tickets, what they see may not be what they can get.
Airlines routinely block coach seats for a variety of reasons, reducing the pool of available seats to reserve free of charge in advance when you book a trip.
On many flights now, 30% to 40% of coach seats are held back by the airline for premium customers, people with special needs or available only for a fee. Facing what look like, but often aren’t, high odds of getting a lousy seat at check-in, sitting apart from children or even getting bumped from an overbooked flight, many travelers feel pressured to pay for a reserved seat.
That pressure has increased as airlines have expanded the number of seats they block from early assignment and added more rows of extra-legroom coach seats, which are offered free or at a discount to elite-level frequent fliers but sold to others. Airlines say all the seats they block or assign for a fee are opened up shortly before departure and customers without advanced seat assignments almost always get accommodated. There is a higher risk of getting involuntarily bumped off flights if you don’t have a seat assignment, but it is rare.
Doug Berg, a frequent business traveler from Detroit, was surprised to see the only spots open in coach were Economy Plus seats with extra legroom for a United Airlines flight from Denver to Spokane, Wash., in May. He had a seat for his Detroit-to-Denver leg, but didn’t realize his travel agent hadn’t been able to reserve a seat for the flight to Spokane until he went to check in online and print boarding passes.
Worried he might get bumped, which would have been a huge problem, since it was a night flight and he had to be at work at 7 a.m. the next day, he paid United an extra $44 to reserve an Economy Plus seat.
At the airport, kiosks showed lots of available free seats in the economy section of the Boeing 737. At the gate, Mr. Berg polled fellow passengers about when they got their seat assignment and learned many reserved coach seats a few hours before departure. Mr. Berg felt ripped off because it appeared United had created an artificial shortage.
“Either seats are available or they are not,” he said. “It frosted me having paid a fee to get an assigned seat to ensure I would get to Spokane while there were seats in my class available.”
Mr. Berg wrote to United to complain and the airline responded saying if he sent documentation, the airline would refund the $44.
I had a similar experience on a recent United Express regional jet flight. At booking, no seats were available to reserve. Two days before departure, two Economy Plus seats became available, and I paid $39 to grab one. The next day, 24 hours before departure, 10 seats opened for free seat assignment.
United says customers with tickets but no seat assignment almost always get seats at check-in. Seats without extra legroom open up as customers decide to pay the fee for Economy Plus and elite-level customers get upgraded to first class or to Economy Plus. Silver-level frequent fliers, for example, don’t get Economy Plus seats free of charge until 24 hours before departure. As they get moved to open Economy Plus seats, “traditional” coach seats open for passengers without seat assignments.
On average, United says, 22% of its economy seats are Economy Plus. But that runs up to 40% on some planes. When there is little demand for Economy Plus, a significant percentage of passengers may face the anxiety of no seat assignment.
“In the hugely overwhelming majority of situations, people will get a seat assigned before departure,” United spokesman Rahsaan Johnson said.
American Airlines blocks a large number of coach seats, both with extra legroom and without, to make them available to customers with top-level status in its frequent-flier program on every flight. Those seats show up on seat maps as occupied for customers without elite status, leading them to conclude seats are scarce. This prompts a portion of them to pony up.
Two weeks before its July 16 departure, American Flight 34 from Los Angeles to New York showed only two middle seats in the back of the airplane available, plus 11 Preferred seats—regular coach seats toward the front without extra legroom—available for a $56.44 fee. Logging in with elite status, however, showed the same flight had far more regular coach seat availability. Flight 34 actually had 12 open window seats and nine open aisle seats.
A week later on Tuesday, the seat map available to non-elites showed only one available middle seat, 38E, in the back of the Boeing 767-200, plus the same 11 Preferred seats at $56.44 each. But elite-level customers saw a total of 41 of 128 coach seats empty.
American says it doesn’t think blocking open seats from view pressures customers into paying for extra-legroom or Preferred seats. The number of seats blocked for elite-level customers varies with demand and “a large percentage of specific seat assignments are still available to all customers at no additional cost,” spokeswoman Cameron King said. “And for our customers who value additional legroom, a certain type of seat or the ability to reserve a specific seat, we have made products available for them as well.”
Unlike American, Delta Air Lines shows the Preferred seats it has held back for elite customers, but doesn’t allow regular customers to book them until 24 hours before departure. At that time, Preferred seats are offered for a fee to nonelite-level customers.
US Airways also blocks seats for elite-level customers and labels them Preferred. The airline sells what it calls Choice seats in rows near the front of the cabin for $5 to $99 one-way that don’t have extra legroom but do have early boarding privileges. On the whole, US Airways says 9.5% of its coach seats are labeled Choice. Preferred, Choice and exit-row seating, which is sometimes sold for a fee, account for an average of 30% of coach seats on the airline’s planes.
Those seats open up to customers without seat assignments who don’t want to pay starting 24 hours before departure, US Airways said.
Consider US Airways Flight 12 from Phoenix to New York on Wednesday. Two days before departure, a seat map showed only 12 Choice seats available for purchase. A day later, less than 24 hours before departure, nine coach seats, five of them middle seats, were available free of charge. Also, 11 Choice seats remained and two exit-row seats opened.

Write to Scott McCartney at middleseat@wsj.com

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