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Getting the Seat You Want

Use your best people skills when interacting with the person behind the checkin counter - they have huge discretion in how they assign you a seat.

Part 3 of a 3 part series - click for Parts  One  Two  Three

 

 

If you can get an airline executive to speak honestly and directly, the chances are they will admit they would love to eliminate advance seat assignments entirely, and envy Southwest with their very functional approach that avoids all seat preassignment issues.

But, for as long as we, the passengers, still have some ability to influence where we sit, we should make best use of this.

This is the third in a three part series; the first article discussed factors that influence seat comfort and the second article discussed where the best seats are on each plane.

Before Arriving at the Airport

Generally you can request seats to be assigned variously up to perhaps 60 days prior to departure on domestic flights (varies from airline to airline), and usually further in advance for international flights. (Note that most airlines only allow flight reservations up to 11 months in advance.)

Your first strategy therefore is to (surprise, surprise), book your ticket as early as possible, and reserve your seats also as early as possible. If you are booking your flights too far in advance for seat preassignment, most travel agencies will be pleased to put your reservation on a 'queue' so that when the seats become first available for advance assignment, they can immediately then request the best seats for you.

Here's a very important tip. Make sure that any and all of your relevant frequent flier membership numbers are in your computer record before requesting seat assignments. Airlines often will block off what they think to be the most desirable seats and only allow frequent fliers to get access to those seats. In addition, if you're having to do some old fashioned begging and pleading, your chance of success is vastly enhanced, even with a plain ordinary non-premium level frequent flier number in your record compared to having no frequent flier data shown at all.

It is very common to have problems getting the seats you want preassigned, and you may be told something that sounds scary such as 'all seats have been preassigned'. Don't worry if this happens. Remember two things - first, nearly all flights are oversold by up to 50% (and sometimes more!); and, second, not all seats are released for pre-assignment.

This means that on, say, a 140 seater 737, an airline might physically sell 200 tickets, but only have 100 seats available for pre-assignment. Half of the people with tickets will not be able to get any type of seat preassigned at all! However, on the day of the flight, only 120 people turn up, meaning that there are 20 remaining empty seats, nearly everyone gets the seat they want, and everyone at least gets a seat of some description.

There are two reasons that airlines typically withhold some of the seats from normal pre-assignment. The first is to give them flexibility at the airport, so that when people turn up and ask (demand!) to be seated together for 'good' reasons, the gate agents have the ability to work minor miracles. The second reason is so that when 'important' clients complain about not being able to get the seat they want preassigned, they can take one of the seats from their 'reserve supply' to satisfy that customer.

So, if you think you have some claim to be 'important' (ie - you're a frequent flier or on a full fare ticket) don't accept the 'we have no more seats available to assign' story, and ask to speak with a supervisor or someone else with authority to override the seat map defaults.

Travel Agency Services

If you're buying your ticket through a travel agency, and they can't immediately find good seats for you, then - but only if you are a good customer of theirs - you might want to ask them if they can call the airline's agency support desk and ask for special help to get better seats cleared for you. Although increasingly airlines are less helpful than in the 'good old days', some agencies still have special relationships with some airlines that can enable them to get good seats even when none appear to be remaining.

Note also that some agencies also have 'seat finding' programs that will automatically check, every day, to see if better seats have been released and made available. If you're not happy with the seat you've been assigned, ask if your travel agent has such a capability.

Check Your Seat Assignments

One reader mentioned the frustration at asking for window seats, being given them, only to invariably find out that the view was obscured by the wing.

When an agent preassigns seats, they can either enter a generic automatic request, or they can manually look through the entire map of seats on the plane. It is easiest just to say to the computer 'give me any window seat' and so this is what they usually do. If you want a nice view, then the best way to do this is to first ask the agent 'can you tell me which rows are shown on your seat map as being over the wing' - this forces the agent to manually look at the seat map. Then, after they have told you the row numbers, ask 'may I have a window seat that has a good view, not blocked by the wing' - and you'll also then be able to immediately know if you've been given a good seat or not when they tell you what it is.

You might also want to avoid seats that are close to toilets or galleys, especially if you will be on a long flight that you hope to get some sleep on. Toilets and galleys can be located at either end and also in the middle of a plane, so if this is important to you, you should also ask about the seats' position relative to such things.

If the agent tries to say that they don't know this information, don't argue, just ask to be transferred to a supervisor. Chances are that will bring about a miraculous improvement in knowledge!

I have a suspicion that sometimes airline reservation agents 'accidentally make a mistake' and cause a passenger to believe that they have been given the type of seat they wanted when in fact that is not the case. So, when you're told you are in seat 26G, make sure you understand whether G signifies an aisle, window, or middle seat, so you can check, yourself, that you truly have the seat you want.

At the Airport

If you don't have the seat you want prior to arrival, you have two remaining strategies.

Generally, all seats are available for assignment by the checkin agents, and so you immediately have access to any extra 'spare' seats that were held back and not pre-assigned. Ask when checking in to get a better seat assignment. You can probably increase your chances by checking in earlier than you otherwise would, so as to be near the top of the queue of people asking for better seats.

Note that if you are checking in for a flight (eg Boston to Chicago) and will then be on a second connecting flight (eg Chicago to San Francisco) then you can ask, when checking in for the first flight, if that agent can also get you better seats for the connecting flight, too.

If they still can't give you the seat you want, then ask 'when do you release seats'? This refers to the time when they cancel all advance seat assignments for passengers that have not yet checked in for the flight - typically is is about 10 minutes or so prior to departure. Ask if you can be put on a waiting list for a better seat when these seats are released. Sometimes they'll say yes, sometimes they'll just suggest you return to the podium at that time.

If they say they'll put you on a "waiting list", watch carefully to see exactly what they do to put you on the list. If they type something into the computer, then they probably have a computerized 'Departure Management System' that can be relied to work as best possible. But if they just take your ticket and put it to one side, don't trust them to remember or to do anything with your request at all! Instead, go back to the podium at the time they said they would release seats and ask 'Have you released your seats yet?'. When they say 'yes' ask 'Would you please now check to see if you can move me to the --- seat that I asked for before'.

On the Plane

There are two things to look out for on the plane. If you're still stuck in a bad seat, you'll want to move to a better seat if you can find one open anywhere. And if you're on a long night flight, the chance to lie down on a block of three or four seats is a wonderful treat.

Keep an eye on the plane door. As soon as it closes, quickly move to wherever you'd rather sit. Don't move before then - you'll annoy the flight attendants, but as soon as the door is shut, any open seat is fair game.

If you have either the window or aisle seat in a row of three seats, and the other two seats are empty, sit in the middle of the three seats - Pam, a flight attendant with 35 years experience says that people will almost never go and sit immediately next to you; that way you preserve the whole row of three seats to yourself and can hopefully lie down across them after the plane takes off.

Here's a helpful hint - usually most planes tend to be emptiest at the rear. If you're looking to find a block of three or four seats to be able to lie down on, move back to the rear of the plane in your search, rather than forwards to the front. You're more likely to find such a block this way.

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Originally published 25 Jan 2002, last update 19 Dec 2013

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

 
 
Related Articles
Close Encounters of the Unpleasant Kind
Where the Best Seats Are
Getting the Seats You Want
First Class Sleeper review
Airline Seats Discussion Forum
 

 


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