Getting the Seat You Want
Use your best people
skills when interacting with the person behind the checkin
counter - they have huge discretion in how they assign you a
3 of a 3 part series - click for Parts
If you can get an airline
executive to speak honestly and directly, the chances are they
will admit they would love to eliminate advance seat assignments
entirely, and envy Southwest with their very functional approach
that avoids all seat preassignment issues.
But, for as long as we, the
passengers, still have some ability to influence where we sit,
we should make best use of this.
This is the third in a three
part series; the first article discussed
factors that influence seat comfort and the
second article discussed where the best seats are on each
Before Arriving at the Airport
Generally you can request
seats to be assigned variously up to perhaps 60 days prior to
departure on domestic flights (varies from airline to airline),
and usually further in advance for international flights. (Note
that most airlines only allow flight reservations up to 11
months in advance.)
Your first strategy
therefore is to (surprise, surprise), book your ticket as early
as possible, and reserve your seats also as early as possible.
If you are booking your flights too far in advance for seat
preassignment, most travel agencies will be pleased to put your
reservation on a 'queue' so that when the seats become first
available for advance assignment, they can immediately then
request the best seats for you.
Here's a very important tip.
Make sure that any and all of your relevant frequent flier
membership numbers are in your computer record before requesting
seat assignments. Airlines often will block off what they think
to be the most desirable seats and only allow frequent fliers to
get access to those seats. In addition, if you're having to do
some old fashioned begging and pleading, your chance of success
is vastly enhanced, even with a plain ordinary non-premium level
frequent flier number in your record compared to having no
frequent flier data shown at all.
It is very common to have
problems getting the seats you want preassigned, and you may be
told something that sounds scary such as 'all seats have been
preassigned'. Don't worry if this happens. Remember two things -
first, nearly all flights are oversold by up to 50% (and
sometimes more!); and, second, not all seats are released for
This means that on, say, a
140 seater 737, an airline might physically sell 200 tickets,
but only have 100 seats available for pre-assignment. Half of
the people with tickets will not be able to get any type of seat
preassigned at all! However, on the day of the flight, only 120
people turn up, meaning that there are 20 remaining empty seats,
nearly everyone gets the seat they want, and everyone at least
gets a seat of some description.
There are two reasons that
airlines typically withhold some of the seats from normal
pre-assignment. The first is to give them flexibility at the
airport, so that when people turn up and ask (demand!) to be
seated together for 'good' reasons, the gate agents have the
ability to work minor miracles. The second reason is so that
when 'important' clients complain about not being able to get
the seat they want preassigned, they can take one of the seats
from their 'reserve supply' to satisfy that customer.
So, if you think you have
some claim to be 'important' (ie - you're a frequent flier or on
a full fare ticket) don't accept the 'we have no more seats
available to assign' story, and ask to speak with a supervisor
or someone else with authority to override the seat map
Travel Agency Services
If you're buying your ticket
through a travel agency, and they can't immediately find good
seats for you, then - but only if you are a good customer of
theirs - you might want to ask them if they can call the
airline's agency support desk and ask for special help to get
better seats cleared for you. Although increasingly airlines are
less helpful than in the 'good old days', some agencies still
have special relationships with some airlines that can enable
them to get good seats even when none appear to be remaining.
Note also that some agencies
also have 'seat finding' programs that will automatically check,
every day, to see if better seats have been released and made
available. If you're not happy with the seat you've been
assigned, ask if your travel agent has such a capability.
Check Your Seat Assignments
One reader mentioned the
frustration at asking for window seats, being given them, only
to invariably find out that the view was obscured by the wing.
When an agent preassigns
seats, they can either enter a generic automatic request, or
they can manually look through the entire map of seats on the
plane. It is easiest just to say to the computer 'give me any
window seat' and so this is what they usually do. If you want a
nice view, then the best way to do this is to first ask the
agent 'can you tell me which rows are shown on your seat map as
being over the wing' - this forces the agent to manually look at
the seat map. Then, after they have told you the row numbers,
ask 'may I have a window seat that has a good view, not blocked
by the wing' - and you'll also then be able to immediately know
if you've been given a good seat or not when they tell you what
You might also want to avoid
seats that are close to toilets or galleys, especially if you
will be on a long flight that you hope to get some sleep on.
Toilets and galleys can be located at either end and also in the
middle of a plane, so if this is important to you, you should
also ask about the seats' position relative to such things.
If the agent tries to say
that they don't know this information, don't argue, just ask to
be transferred to a supervisor. Chances are that will bring
about a miraculous improvement in knowledge!
I have a suspicion that
sometimes airline reservation agents 'accidentally make a
mistake' and cause a passenger to believe that they have been
given the type of seat they wanted when in fact that is not the
case. So, when you're told you are in seat 26G, make sure you
understand whether G signifies an aisle, window, or middle seat,
so you can check, yourself, that you truly have the seat you
At the Airport
If you don't have the seat
you want prior to arrival, you have two remaining strategies.
Generally, all seats are
available for assignment by the checkin agents, and so you
immediately have access to any extra 'spare' seats that were
held back and not pre-assigned. Ask when checking in to get a
better seat assignment. You can probably increase your chances
by checking in earlier than you otherwise would, so as to be
near the top of the queue of people asking for better seats.
Note that if you are
checking in for a flight (eg Boston to Chicago) and will then be
on a second connecting flight (eg Chicago to San Francisco) then
you can ask, when checking in for the first flight, if that
agent can also get you better seats for the connecting flight,
If they still can't give you
the seat you want, then ask 'when do you release seats'? This
refers to the time when they cancel all advance seat assignments
for passengers that have not yet checked in for the flight -
typically is is about 10 minutes or so prior to departure. Ask
if you can be put on a waiting list for a better seat when these
seats are released. Sometimes they'll say yes, sometimes they'll
just suggest you return to the podium at that time.
If they say they'll put you
on a "waiting list", watch carefully to see exactly what they do
to put you on the list. If they type something into the
computer, then they probably have a computerized 'Departure
Management System' that can be relied to work as best possible.
But if they just take your ticket and put it to one side, don't
trust them to remember or to do anything with your request at
all! Instead, go back to the podium at the time they said they
would release seats and ask 'Have you released your seats yet?'.
When they say 'yes' ask 'Would you please now check to see if
you can move me to the --- seat that I asked for before'.
On the Plane
There are two things to look
out for on the plane. If you're still stuck in a bad seat,
you'll want to move to a better seat if you can find one open
anywhere. And if you're on a long night flight, the chance to
lie down on a block of three or four seats is a wonderful treat.
Keep an eye on the plane
door. As soon as it closes, quickly move to wherever you'd
rather sit. Don't move before then - you'll annoy the flight
attendants, but as soon as the door is shut, any open seat is
If you have either the
window or aisle seat in a row of three seats, and the other two
seats are empty, sit in the middle of the three seats - Pam, a
flight attendant with 35 years experience says that people will
almost never go and sit immediately next to you; that way you
preserve the whole row of three seats to yourself and can
hopefully lie down across them after the plane takes off.
Here's a helpful hint -
usually most planes tend to be emptiest at the rear. If you're
looking to find a block of three or four seats to be able to lie
down on, move back to the rear of the plane in your search,
rather than forwards to the front. You're more likely to find
such a block this way.
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25 Jan 2002, last update
21 Jul 2020
You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.