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Air Travel

Make sure you have seat assignment in advance

TOM PARSONS  Aug 29, 2010

American Airlines recently began charging passengers to sit in the front of coach class during domestic flights, and there has been a lot of grumbling about it.

Many passengers don't want to pay seat fees, but some passengers may find it worth the extra cost because you get to board first and get off the plane faster and you'll have your pick of the overhead bin space.

With the new Express Seats program, passengers pay a per-flight fee of $19, $29 or $39, depending on distance, to sit in one of the coveted spots in the front of coach class. Passengers can pay for these seats from 24 hours to 50 minutes before departure at an airport kiosk.

With airlines flying with full flights these days, if you aren't an elite frequent flier, you may find that a middle seat is your only option when booking your flight. If I were stuck with a middle seat, I'd seriously consider paying the fee because I can't see myself wanting to be sandwiched between two other passengers, whether they're the size of a Dallas Cowboys tackle or Twiggy.

If you don't mind the middle, you can sit back and do nothing, but if you do mind, you may want to pay. If you're going on a short hop such as Dallas to San Antonio, you may not want to pay, but on a longer flight such as Dallas to San Francisco, it may be worth the extra money.

Available seats

We start seeing seats open up in coach when elite fliers move to the very front of the plane. Superelite fliers can be upgraded to first class 100 hours before departure; Platinum, 72 hours before; and Gold, 24 hours before.

If you don't have the status to get one of these upgrades, you still should check for seats if you want to get a better coach-class seat. When an elite traveler is upgraded to first class, that person probably is leaving a good seat open in coach, and you may be able to nab it if you check with the airline 24 hours before departure.

When you arrive at the airport, check the airplane's seat map at an airline kiosk to see if there's an open seat that's preferable to yours that's free of charge. The seats you really want to watch for are the exit-row seats, because they offer extra leg- room, sometimes more than what you find in first class, and there's no extra charge for those seats.

I have also heard from friends and family who got an offer to pay to upgrade to first class when they checked in at a kiosk. The deal isn't always available, because it depends on the airline and how full the front cabin is. However, a friend was able to upgrade to first on a Continental flight from Houston to Phoenix for $69, and my stepson upgraded to first class for $100 on a flight from Dallas to Portland. While these prices were higher than the Express Seats program, the perks of first class make it worth paying extra.

If you have a seat assignment in an aisle or window seat farther back in coach, paying these fees doesn't make a lot of sense. You don't get more legroom or extras such as free drinks, so you're paying only to get off the plane a little faster.

If the airline doesn't get enough takers on the paid seat assignments, it will assign these seats randomly, so you can always ask at the gate if there are open seats up front.

If you are assigned one of these front-of-coach seats and you haven't paid, don't worry that your seat might be sold to a paying customer. Once your seat is assigned, the airline can't take it from you.

Have an assignment

Anytime you fly, make sure you have a seat assignment in advance. If it's 24 hours before departure and you don't have a seat assignment, a middle seat starts looking pretty good, because it is much better than no seat at all. If you don't have a seat assigned and you arrive at the airport and find an overbooked flight, you'll be the first to be bumped if the airline doesn't get enough volunteers to give up their seats.

Many people want to be bumped so they can get a free flight, but do it on your terms. Don't be forced into it because you don't have a seat assigned.

Make sure you have seat assignment in advance
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