I didn’t get the specific seats I reserved, so what is my recourse?

When Rich Winer booked flights for himself and his wife on Lufthansa, he paid an extra $200 to reserve specific seats. Lufthansa confirmed in an email to Winer that he had reserved those seats.

But when he checked in for the outbound flight, he found that he and his wife had been assigned other seats. Lufthansa’s flight attendants told Winer that “there was nothing they could do.”

“I took the time to review my options on seatguru.com and specifically select seats. My time and effort was completely wasted due to Lufthansa’s error,” says Winer.

Our advocates have been seeing a large number of requests for help from air passengers like Winer, who pay extra to reserve airline seats, only to find themselves unable to sit in them.

Pat Sikatsky had a similar experience. She and her husband paid for specific seats together on an American Airlines flight, only to find at check-in that their seat assignments had been changed, to seats across the aisle from each other.

And Steven Steinberg lost the bulkhead seat he’d paid for on Norwegian Airlines when it changed the plane assigned to his flight to an aircraft with a different configuration, where his seat was no longer in a bulkhead row.

What everyone would like to know is: Are they entitled to the seats for which they have received confirmations? And what can they do if the airlines reseat them?

When Winer contacted Lufthansa to ask why his seats were changed, he was told that for some unknown reason, his seat reservation payment, made through Chase Travel Services, did not go through, and thus he had not reserved the seats. And he received no help from Lufthansa’s customer service:

When I returned home and called to complain about my experience, I was told that there was no one I could speak with in customer service and that I could only contact them by email or through their website. I sent them an email to complain about my experience and request a refund for our seat reservation, but I have not heard anything from them.

Winer might have escalated his complaint using our contact information for Lufthansa, but he asked our advocates for help instead.

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Winer wants to know: “Why did [Lufthansa] immediately send me a confirmation that my seats had been reserved? Why didn’t I receive any notification at the time or at any later date that my payment had not gone through?”

Those are valid questions, but we don’t have the answers. And, unfortunately, we can’t advocate with Lufthansa on Winer’s behalf.

Lufthansa’s terms and conditions hold that for advance seat reservations,

Advance Seat Reservation allows passengers to request a specific seat category (eg. window, aisle, middle, seat with more space) from a selection of available seats in their booked cabin class on domestic and international flights operated by Lufthansa. Advance Seat Reservation is subject to availability of requested seats. Depending on the seat category and for some booking classes charges apply for Advance Seat Reservation. There is no obligation for you to make an Advance Seat Reservation.

We reserve the right to assign or reassign seats at any time, even after boarding of the aircraft. This may be necessary for operational, safety or security reasons. If you purchased an Advance Seat Reservation and the flight is cancelled, or if seat changes are made by us for operational, safety, or security reasons we will refund the amount you paid for the seat reservation if your desired seat category is not available. If you cancel or rebook your ticket or purchase an upgrade or have made incorrect statements on your ability to sit on emergency exit seats the amount paid for the seat reservation will not be refunded.

According to the terms and conditions, although Lufthansa allows passengers to request specific seating, it doesn’t promise to fulfill such requests. Although Lufthansa promises to refund seat reservation fees to passengers whose seats are reassigned, it will only do so if it has received payment of those fees. And this is the case for every airline. Specific seating is never guaranteed.

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As our advocate told Winer, “We advocate cases for customers who have not received the service they have paid for. What we don’t do is seek compensation for inconvenience no matter how deserved. In your case, you did receive the service you paid for.”

Our forum advocates suggested to Sikatsky and Steinberg that they contact customer service executives at American Airlines and Norwegian Airlines, respectively, using our contact information, to request refunds of the price differentials between the seats they paid for and the seats they were assigned. We advised both of them to write polite, concise letters to the primary contact for each airline and allow those persons a week to respond before writing to the next-ranking contact person.

We also noted in all three cases that booking a flight reservation far in advance can often result in involuntary seat reassignments — so travelers who purchase their airfares months before flying should be prepared for the possibility that they won’t be sitting in the seats they reserved.

When it comes to advance airline seat selection, we can only warn our readers: Let the flyer beware.

Jennifer Finger

Jennifer is the founder of KeenReader, an Internet-based freelance editing operation, as well as a certified public accountant. She is a senior writer for Elliott.org.

  • MarkKelling

    As our advocate told Winer, “… In your case, you did receive the service you paid for.”

    Did he? He reserved specific seats. He did not get to sit in those seats. IF he was charged by his credit card for the reservation, he did NOT receive the service paid for.

  • jim6555

    Only in the airline industry could this happen. If I pay to reserve specific seats for a sporting event, I receive tickets for that event with the seat numbers printed on the tickets. I have never heard of seating assignment at a sporting event changed because another patron, who attends many events, wants the seats. Airlines charge us fees for almost any changes to flight schedules that we make. Perhaps their tariffs should provide for a refund of seating charges plus a penalty fee when seats that are reserved are not provided.

  • Sue Smith

    I agree. If you reserve specific seats for whatever reason, you should get those seats. No questions asked. I travel with my family, but if I get separated from them because I didn’t book as far ahead as others, I do not expect them to be moved to accommodate me. We need people in Washington to fight for consumers rights on airlines, and quit letting them get away with this. It is not right.

  • Sue Smith

    well said.

  • Kairho

    It sounds like the payment never went through and a comedy of errors ensued, resulting in no payment and no upgraded/preferential seats.

  • Kairho

    First, it’s rare that a sporting event changes venue. At least, rarer than an airline having to change aircraft. But if it were to happen, guaranteed one would be in different seats. Second, airlines DO refund when they cannot deliver seats which needed an extra payment.

  • KennyG

    According to the article, he never paid for those seats because for some [unknown] reason, which may actually be known to the LW, although not to the advocates, the bank refused the credit card charge.

  • y_p_w

    Th servie in question isn’t whether or not he got to fly, which is why he paid for. The service is about a particular seat selection, which in this case seems like it didn’t go through and he wasn’t charged. If he was charged for it and didn’t receive it, then of course the recourse is to receive a refund of the selection fee.

    Think about it. Do you suppose that “They didn’t charge me for it, so I want my money back” makes any sense? And advocacy for inconvenience isn’t what Elliott.org does.

  • KennyG

    What if those seats no longer exist, say because of an equipment change? Should you still get those seats, “no questions asked”? How would you propose doing that? The airlines already state that there is no guarantee that those seats will in fact be available, and they will refund any up-charges if they don’t actually deliver on what was paid for but not provided.

  • y_p_w

    There is such thing as general admission.

    And I have heard of people who were specifically asked to move without being completely tossed from an event.

  • y_p_w

    Whenever I’ve heard of an event changing venue, it’s typically where the cost is refunded and where they sell tickets for the new venue. It’s happened before after a natural disaster damaged a venue.

  • jim6555

    There are many cases posted at Elliott.org where the airlines moved customers to a lower class of service and it took the efforts of a consumer advocate to obtain a refund.

  • Mel65

    Seems like Winer should take this up with Chase Travel. I am baffled by the confirmation though. I just got my seat upgrade confirmations from American, but it took about 10 mins and I didn’t get it until after payment was confirmed… so… weird.

  • MarkKelling

    Of course if he did not actually get charged for it then he is due nothing.

    But if the charge appeared on his credit card statement, which I will give him the benefit of the doubt and say it did, then he is due something since he did not get the seat he believed he was paying for. It may be an issue with the credit card where the payment never made it to the airline.

  • Alan Gore

    The one valid excuse that an airline would have for denying a paid seat reservation is equipment change. This was not what happened in most of the cases covered here.

  • KanExplore

    True enough, but if for some reason the football game had to change stadiums it could happen. That’s rare, though it does happen occasionally. Airlines, on the other hand, have to switch aircraft frequently for a multitude of reasons. The new aircraft might not have the same number of rows or number of seats per row. I’m sure most people would rather fly (with a refund if they aren’t getting the seat assignment they paid for), rather than have to wait until an identical plane becomes available to fly the route.

  • Sue Smith

    I presumed you would infer that the seats still existed from my comments. If they changed plane and seat configurations, I understand. But, most of the time that isn’t the case.

  • joycexyz

    An airplane is not an arena or a theater. Event locations rarely change. Sometimes the type of plane differs from what was originally planned, and the seating configuration may be different. There may also be cases where an airline VIP, an air marshal, or a family with small children needs particular seats. Unfortunate, but it happens. If a passenger paid extra for a specific type of seat or location and is not accommodated, then he/she clearly should get a refund of that extra fee–and without having to beg for it. And in Winer’s case, he should be complaining to Chase about the payment problem with Lufthansa.

  • joycexyz

    Yes. I do a lot of online buying, and my impression is that you don’t get a confirmation until the payment has been verified.

  • cscasi

    My question is, why didn’t Mr. Winer check his seat reservations on Lufthansa.com? He would have immediately seen whether or not the seats he says he reserved and paid for were what was assigned or not.
    ” Why didn’t I receive any notification at the time or at any later date that my payment had not gone through?”. A quick check of the credit card charges he had made would have shown whether or not the charge went through.
    This just leads me to remind people that they need to take it upon themselves to check their reservations, ticketing, seating, etc., ad ensure what they think they reserved/got is actually what is shown. Also, if the reservations are made months out, keep checking to ensure nothing has changed on their reservations. Many times, if one catches changes early, one can go back in and get the seats changed back or find something acceptable, instead of walking on the plane the day of departure and get an unexpected surprise. One has to take care of one’s self.

  • KennyG

    “If you reserve specific seats for whatever reason, you should get those seats. No questions asked. “.. No inference was taken. You said it in black and white, “No questions asked”. And I certainly cannot speak to your assertion that most of the time equipment changes are not the reason for seating changes. Perhaps you have some statistical data that backs that part of your statement up? Or perhaps you are simply inferring it from complaints that some folks have made?.

  • Lindabator

    He never paid for them – so he DID get what he paid for

  • Lindabator

    he NEVER paid for the seats, as the charge was declined — so he GOT what he “paid” for

  • Lindabator

    he never claimed it did – just made an assumption all was well till checkin, then complained, but airline showed card never went thru, so no seats

  • Lindabator

    you CLEARLY did not read — he put on his charge, but the card was never charged, so the seats were never assigned

  • Lindabator

    the fact his card did not work to allow the charge is hardly the airline’s fault – h would have sn a charg or lack of one on his statement, so…..

  • Lindabator

    specious argument — NO seats are guaranteed, as aircraft can change for any reason, emergency needs can arise, etc

  • Lindabator

    they actually can get a chargeback from the bank within 24 hours on international transactions – especially if you have a restricted card, and did not let them know this was an international charge

  • Lindabator

    domestic purchases – unfortunately this is an international bank, and if your card is restrictive, you should always let the bank know in advance to expect a foreign charge, as they have 24 hours to charge it back to the vendor

  • Travelnut

    Yep. Download the app or get online and check your reservations regularly. United in particular has a habit of canceling one of the flights I originally booked, or changing the seat assignment without notifying me. I check about once a week until the week of the flight, then once a day.

  • Bill___A

    And then there are the times where they DO refund them and no one complains to Elliott. I’ve got them refunded. Every time. And I’m talking about seat reservations, not, for example, being moved from business class to economy class.

  • Maxwell Smart

    but the airline wasn’t paid, so they won’t be refunding

  • Maxwell Smart

    aircraft swaps are made all the time. Sometimes an airline under estimates demand & if they can, switch to a bigger aircraft or vice versa. Sometimes, there’s a problem with aircraft & it is not airworthy & if they have a spare aircraft they might switch, however in peak periods no airline has aircraft sitting around just in case. they cost too much to just have sitting around. If it odd circumstance, in peak period, an airline does have a spare aircraft, you’d have to wonder how efficient they are.

  • pauletteb

    The payment didn’t go through, so the seats were never reserved. Didn’t he bother to check his credit card?

  • ctporter

    If a Federal Air Marshal (FAM) takes your seat the airline as far as I know cannot tell you why your seat was taken away. Other than that however, yes there should be a consequence for taking away a seat even though an equipment swap happened.

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