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All Seats Are Not Created Equal
Can the airline take away my assigned aisle seat? Sure they can.
Seat assignments are an important element of airline service. Most frequent flyers seem to prefer aisle seats; many leisure travelers like window seats, and just about everybody hates middle seats. So when you work to snag the seat you prefer, and your airline confirms it, you expect to keep it for your flight. Unfortunately, things don't always work out that way. A reader reported this experience:
"My wife and I just returned from our annual vacation. Because I recently had double knee replacements, I always try to sit in seat "C" so I can stretch my right leg into the aisle. My wife sits across the aisle from me in seat "D." We always book our seats as soon as the airline allows so we can get these seats. But on our last two trips, the airline changed equipment and arbitrarily changed our seats to middles without notifying us. When I called to inquire, the airline agent said that when my flights were upgraded to larger planes, its computer reassigned all seats automatically. I believe that there is no reason to change any seat if they are just upgrading to a larger plane. All an airline needs to do is leave all previously booked seat assignments alone and just fill in those unoccupied seats. Had I not frequently checked our reservations online, I would not have known about the seat change until we arrived at the airport. I had confirmed assignments; so where is my guarantee?"
The short answer is that there is no "guarantee." No airline I know guarantees any seat assignment. Your ticket entitles you to some seat on the flight, in the class of service you bought, but not any specific seat within that cabin. Seat assignment is an accommodation, not a "right."
All Seats Are Not Created Equal
In setting fares and other policies, airlines typically make the implicit assumption that all seats in any given cabin are created equal. Obviously, this assumption is false. In other contexts, airlines themselves admit to a hierarchy of seats: aisle, then window, then middle.
Anyone who has flown more than once or twice knows that middle seats in coach cabins are extremely cramped and uncomfortable. (My personal belief is that they violate the Constitution's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.) If you value comfort at all, you work hard to avoid them. And if you have a game leg, you may well try for an aisle seat.
Seat assignments are sufficiently important to frequent travelers that many airlines routinely assign advanced seat assignments only for travelers on expensive unrestricted or corporate-rate tickets. Travelers on inexpensive coach excursion tickets must then wait for their assignments until they arrive at the airport for check-in to their flights.
Special Fares for Special Seats
A few airlines have recently started imposing surcharges for seats customers prefer: Several charge extra for aisle and window seats; some charge extra for seats in the front rows of the coach cabin (where travelers can deplane more quickly than in the back); and a few charge extra for bulkhead and exit-row seats with extra legroom.
United and JetBlue have gone even further. Both have reconfigured their coach cabins, with one section of seats having four to five more inches of legroom than the rest of the plane, and both charge extra for these seats. Beyond that, a handful of international airlines provide a dedicated "premium economy" cabin with extra-wide seats and more legroom than regular economy.
When Planes Change
As far as I can tell, most airlines try to honor seat assignments, once made. However, as noted, they don't guarantee assignments. And when an airline has to change the type of airplane, it may or may not be possible to retain the original or equivalent assignments:
With variations among the same narrow-body family of planes, such as among different 737 variants, different Airbus 319-320-321 variants, 737-757 changes, or even Airbus-to-Boeing changes, seat mapping is generally consistent: C and D seats are always aisles, and such. But even within these families, direct substitution is sometimes not possible. For example, some Continental models do not have row 11, some others do not have rows eight to 15, so if your initial assignment is in one of those rows, you can't keep those same seats in a switch.
A quick visit to our sister site SeatGuru shows that variations between different aircraft families can be even greater. On several airlines, for example, DC-9 and MD-80 models have no C seats at all. And some airlines' 767s have no C seats, either. Obviously, if an airline switches to one of these models, travelers in C seats will have to be reassigned to something else. And, of course, if an airline downsizes your plane, it can't keep all of the original seat assignments.
What to Do
If you're really concerned about a seat assignment, there are a few ways you can minimize your risks of disappointment:
If you have an assignment, keep checking your reservation to learn of any changes. If something does change, call the airline immediately to undo any damage it may have done.
If you need extra legroom, try to fly an airline that provides above-average legroom in coach. Currently, your best bets are JetBlue and Southwest.
If extra legroom is important enough to pay, try to schedule your trips on JetBlue or United and pay the modest premium for extra-room sections.