Buyer Beware: Paying for a Seat Upgrade Doesn’t Guarantee You a Seat

Even if you pay to move into an economy plus seat, airlines can seat you wherever they want come departure day.

You’ve booked your flight reservation, and facing 12 hours with your knees in a seatback pocket, bought into the scheme where you pay the airline extra money to “upgrade” into a seat that is reminiscent of a coach seat from 15 years ago. That is, a seat with sufficient room for an adult human being.

Perhaps you expect to get what you pay for; as American commerce law goes, the implied warranty of the product sold as advertised. Expect differently.

Per the Wall Street Journal, the paid seat upgrade is yet another way in which airlines have claimed to extricate themselves from the standards of commercial decency imposed on nearly every other industry.

“If you buy an assigned seat at a theater, sports or concert venue, you get the seat you picked. But an assigned seat on an airline is radically different: Every so often, you don’t get it, even when you pay extra for it. Premium-seating fees guarantee nothing.”

The Journal’s resident travel columnist interviewed three U.S. airlines, American, Delta and United, about their premium seat upgrades. All three airlines gave similar responses: we may seat you wherever we like.

One family interviewed had to take their own time to reach out to American Airlines after being pulled out of $121 Main Cabin Extra seats. Eventually the airline responded with a refund — and 5,000 comped AAdvantage miles. How about a complimentary spa treatment for the pain and suffering endured in the airline’s increasingly diminutive main cabin seats?

Even paid first class passengers aren’t guaranteed a seat. Frequent fliers have plenty of anecdotal familiarity with this. Even The Points Guy, Brian Kelly, was snubbed a first class seat on a paid United first class ticket last year. The airline failed to notify Kelly of an aircraft change before he arrived at the airport, prompting a long, drawn out Twitter exchange between the points and miles aficionado and United.

In another highly publicized incident, a first class United customer was threatened with arrest after the airline bumped him from a paid first class seat.

Of course, this examination of seating policy came about because of another twitter tirade: the fit put on by Ann Coulter, a conservative political commentator who rose to prominence during the George W. Bush presidency. The twitter rant is really the only two similarities between Coulter’s case and the ones explored by TPG and The Wall Street Journal. Coulter actually kept her extra legroom, but being moved from one window seat to another is apparently sufficient to summon her unbridled outrage.

FlyerTalk is home to a series of threads about unrequested and unanticipated seat changes. Many a frequent flier has speculated about the reasoning of lost first class and extra legroom seats.

While the actual incidence of seat loss seems to be rare, at least in my experience, the possibility of unhappy outcomes looms large. Monitor your seat assignments in the days before flights, and buyer beware, unless you’re flying private, as you may someday feel the pang of gateside disappointment.

Comments

  1. Well, it seems our congressional representatives have some work to do. We cannot allow airlines or other businesses to enter into contracts with people that are one sided. What a lazy sack congress is.

    • Certainly regulation would be one way to help consumers with this problem, though I’d imagine the relative infrequency of this problem keeps it fairly low on lawmakers’ radar. Most of the time, passengers are able to sit in the seat they choose when booking. No guarantees, though.

  2. All of these same issues hold true for every seat when it comes to overbooking. It’s the reason I think overbooking should be illegal. But that’s my opinion.

    Oh and the part about Ann Coulter “who was active during the George W. Bush presidency. ” doesn’t really make sense to me. She is still active. She has been active during GW, Obama and now even Trump so that seems like an odd statement. Not trying to be an editor but just something I noticed.

    • Points well taken, Danin. I changed it to read “rose to prominence” during the Bush presidency. Cheers, John.

  3. I literally just had the same issue with Delta. Paid for a Comfort Plus seats for myself and my wife all the way back in Feb for a flight from San Diego to Paris in Sept. I happened to check online, and noticed my seat had changed. The airline told me the same thing you describe on the article, aircraft changed, blah blah. I called Customer Service this am, and all a supervisor offered was to refund me the money I spent on the upgrade. That’s terrible customer service in my opinion. It wasn’t until I “shamed” Delta on twitter that I was offered the measly 5K miles. I’m a loyal Delta customer, but this has left a really bad taste in my mouth. Now the wife and I won’t sit together from Salt Lake City all the way to Paris.

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