No Guarantee, Unless You Upgrade?

Tracy Stewart, April 21, 2011
Fares from Washington DC:

    Q. I very recently flew from Tulsa to Albuquerque on United. When I paid for my ticket online, I recieved a confirmation. I was able to choose a seat on the second leg (IAD-ABQ), but not the first (TUL-IAD). Later, when I checked in for my flight online, I tried again to get a seat for the first leg. Still a no-go, but I kept getting a prompt to "pay $39 for Economy Plus." Well, no thanks, it's a little over an hour flight and I can deal with a regular seat for that long. Unfortunately, this was the only option I was given.

    I checked in 3 1/2 hours early, just in case, and was told I still could not get a seat assignment because if a flight is "80% full, they hold the remaining seats to be able to accomodate families, wheelchair passengers, etc."

    I was too afraid to leave my gate area after check-in (although I was there so, so early) for any length of time because they were supposed to call people up "at some point" for seat assignments. I did get a seat eventually, so why am I complaining? It was very stressful as I didn't want to be stuck and I understand many airlines are in the habit of bumping passengers, even when they buy in advance and have a confirmation! I counted, and because I knew the size of the aircraft and then listened to the number of names called at the gate - a lot! - I was able to deduce that it was well over 20%. How many people gave up and paid the $39 when prompted because they wanted to be assured a seat? Hmm... smells like a trick to get more cash from passengers if you ask me.

    Incidentally, the IAD-ABQ flight was completely full as well, but I was able to get a seat assignment any time I wanted. That flight was operated by United, andalthough everything on the TUL-IAD flight indicated United, I found out it was actually operated by SkyWest. Do they need to make a little more revenue on that portion to pay them off or something, or is this somehow normal?

    A. it's pretty common for airlines not to offer seat assignments on heavily booked flights and, you're right, sometimes that means you could end up being bumped. But bribing people to upgrade to a roomier seat is new to us. Obviously, the airline was holding back seats in the hope of making some extra cash. It's like on Broadway where theaters sell "premium seats" for twice the regular ticket price far in advance but end up selling them at the last minute for the regular price if no one bites. Just another scam.