Switching airline seats

Is it Proper for Airlines to Bait and Switch Seats?

I’ve done some traveling in the past few weeks, mostly on Delta. I book my flights online and always pick an aisle seat, if one is available.

But I’ve noticed that when I hand in my boarding pass, the airline almost aways assigns me to a different seat, often in the back of the plane in a cramped center seat.

Because I ride economy class, I guess they feel they can push me around. It happened again on my return to Sarasota this past weekend.

Is it fair for airlines to offer you a choice and then switch you at the last minute? True, other passengers may have paid more for their tickets. But they had a choice of seats, too, and I doubt they were bumped to the back of the plane.

As an economy passenger, I’m always in the last group to board. Always awkward to hear the call for First Class, Premium Select, Delta One and Comfort+ until they finally get to me.

Whoever chose Comfort+ as a brand name? Several years ago, I wrote about Delta’s then “Economy Comfort” designation for these seats that offer four inches more legroom.

The implication is the same with the new appellation: economy passengers who walk past may be inclined to think, “Am I sitting in Uncomfortable+ seats?”

It sends the wrong signal to the passengers in regular economy that they are headed to a seat for a cramped and uncomfortable ride. Passengers have an expectation of comfort, without having to pay extra for it.

A Bumpy Ride

Airline brands have taken a hit in the past few months with unfortunate incidents like security guards called by United Airlines dragging a passenger off a plane and an American Airlines flight attendant who whacked a mother with her baby’s stroller and then ejected the mother and her child from the plane.

Of course, the airlines apologized. But the standards of customer service have declined, in my view, with consolidation in the airline industry. The airlines might think, what choice do you have, especially on a long trip? But I can see the fallout in my own family.

A nephew who drove from Williamsburg, VA to Florida rather than endure the experience of a crowded airport, delayed flights (the norm) and poor customer service. A niece and her husband who drove from Maine to North Carolina.

There are other options. I can take Amtrak if I’m traveling the Boston-Washington, DC corridor. And I’ve taken a bus more than once. I like the $35 round trip fare.

Brands that don’t honor their promises soon learn that their customers have other options. There are always other options.

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  1. This type of behavior is an egregious violation of trust. I am sure their lawyers set it up so they can get away with “it” – it being selling your more desirable seat for more money to a latecomer. By all accounts, Delta is the worst of them.

    You can watch this play out right now on Capitol Hill where the FAA Reauthorization Act (funding the agency) is about to come up. There is a movement afoot to essentially remove the Air Traffic Control portion of the FAA (some 38,000 people and $10B) and create a private ‘non-profit’ entity to manage it in the name of efficiency.

    Guess who the proposed managers – and direct beneficiaries would be? Yes, the airlines.

    Guess what the opposition (those in favor of maintaining the status quo) brings up? Dragging passengers off planes, seat flipping, oversold flights, price gouging, ever narrower seats and so on.

    If you read this and are concerned I would encourage you to let your elected representatives know how you feel.

    • Christopher — it’s in the small print. You are not guaranteed your seat on a plane. The airlines have the right to switch your seat. Ann Coulter caused a big brouhaha recently when she paid for a premium seat and was switched to another seat anyway.

  2. You know Jeannette, I enjoyed a terrific career in the travel industry that required me to spend a LOT of time on planes and all I can say is that I have never been happier to have left that behind me! To answer the question you posed at the beginning, in my opinion, NO it’s not okay to bait and switch passengers, but obviously, the airlines feel that they can and it would seem they do so on a regular basis.

    Since I moved back to the mainland I haven’t stepped foot on a plane and don’t think I will again unless there is no other option. I love trains and there’s a charming train station conveniently located right in the center of Eugene. Also, I was pleasantly surprised not long ago when I took a “motor coach” up to Portland – the seats were large and plush and the ride was so comfortable. No dealing with freeway traffic or parking hassles – I love it!

    • Marquita — I take the train whenever possible. I’ve also taken buses on trips that are under 5 hours. The newer buses have wi-fi and often TV’s. They are also very reasonably priced. I can understand your avoiding flying. It’s simply no fun.

  3. I was trying to think of what would happen if another industry adopted the same approach as airlines. Would you go to a restaurant that seated you by the bathroom if you didn’t pay extra? What if the grocery store charged you a convenience fee to access products near the front?

    I take the train whenever I can and I know that sooner or later someone will innovate and change the industry. Effectively do to airlines what Airbnb did to hotels and what Uber did to taxies. They will be able to do it largely because airlines do a poor job of building customer loyalty. I don’t know about you, but I choose my airline based on price and who is least likely to wreck my trip.

    • Debra — It also annoys me that they don’t tell you they are changing your seat until you’re at the gate and then they hand you a slip of paper with your seat number as you’r entering the gangway. I would have appreciated knowing why they switched me from my aisle seat to a middle seat in the back of the plane. True, I buy on price but I don’t think that I deserve to be treated like a third-class citizen.

  4. You’ve sure hit a sore spot with me, Jeannette. Because of where my husband travels for work, he would fly mostly on United, which meant we were both collecting points on United because I go with him sometimes. You start to expect a certain amount of service. HA!

    I began taking pictures of the gate signs, Delayed, delayed, delayed because it became routine. They made a mess of our travel plans time and again. We sprung for first class tickets the last time we went to Hawaii (from Pittsburgh) because my husband got a good deal. Well, the plane was ancient, the seats crappy and they changed the San Francisco gate 7 times. Yep, an elderly man we were speaking with walked the long distance from gate to gate and back (to the same gates) again.

    So they bait and switch in more areas than the simple seat problems and it’s enough to make me question my travel desires.

    • RoseMary — I can relate. Another thing, I no longer allow only 45 minutes between flights if I have to change planes (I’d rather sit in the airport for 2 hours and get the next flight). Last year I flew into the Charlotte airport on my way to Raleigh. Of course, my plane was late leaving Sarasota, so I was pressed for time. I had to run to another terminal and when I arrived I was at Gate 1. My flight was leaving from gate 78! I didn’t know that gate numbers ran that high. Luckily, I saw the jitney and hitched a ride to the gate just as passengers were boarding. I shouldn’t have rushed. We sat at the gate for 3 hours because of a faulty fuel hose!!

  5. How airlines behave, above all, in the United States, is shameful. They should not switch seats or, worse, drag people off the plane because they are overbooked. But money talks is the name of the game. Just look at your president and how he acts.

    • Catarina — it is shameful. You don’t even find out until they hand you a piece of paper on it with your new seat as you’re boarding the plane. Not much time to complain then, which is why I assume they wait until the last minute to let you know.

  6. If you are given a specific seat, you should be given the opportunity to be seated there. Being in economy class should not mean you are treated as herd. Perhaps airline staff feel you will not notice where you are seated as economy is pretty basic and offers no perks whatsoever. Whether first class or economy, one is paying for a service.

    • Phoenicia — I agree. I’m still a paying passenger, economy or not. But the airlines apparently don’t agree that I should be treated with respect, too.

  7. Great post, Jeannette. I love to travel, but agree that air travel has gotten really out of hand. On a trip to Pennsylvania via Toronto in July, I was shocked to hear the airline counter staff admit that travel on this route was almost ALWAYS several hours late! That has become the new norm, and so they don’t even feel they need to apologize or offer compensation other than a $10 meal voucher! I am very pleased to say that in Canada, our domestic flights almost always run on time unless there is a major weather event disrupting travel.

    • Doreen — glad to know your Canadian airlines run on time. I’m not sure I ever told you but way, way back I worked on the Air Canada advertising account here in the U.S. Main objective was to get Canadians to use AC when traveling between the U.S. and Canada. At that time, there were 2 million Canadians living in California, either part-time of full-time. The warm weather is always a draw!

  8. I am facing the same difficulty. Often it is impossible to a web checkin in economy class. If I am able to do a check-in, the seat gets changed because someone else is traveling with family and my seat gets allotted to them.

    • Neva — thanks for stopping by. I can understand why airlines want to seat families together. But they should ask the passenger first if it’s OK to move you. For example, if you are sitting in an aisle seat you may have difficulty getting out of a middle or window seat. So it’s a process of negotiation.

  9. I usually fly Southwest, which has open seating. I wasn’t aware seats could be changed like that, but I guess everything is in the small print 😉 I don’t think it’s right. If you pick your seats on the diagram when you purchase a ticket online, those are the seats you should get. Hardly anyone likes to sit at the back of the plane!