Want a better seat on the plane? There’s an app for that

To say H. Robert Harrison’s recent flight from Philadelphia to Barcelona was uncomfortable might be something of an understatement.

Harrison, a physician from Hilton Head, S.C., managed to squeeze his 5-foot-6, 148-pound frame into a narrow aisle seat. But whenever he dozed off, his left elbow slid off the thin armrest and a meal cart would slam into it, jolting him awake.

Harrison cursed the airline that would “cram extra seats in the back and make people uncomfortable just to make a few extra dollars.”

Fortunately, there’s an app for that. Several, actually. The latest is Seateroo, a program that launched last Monday that lets passengers swap seats on a plane. They join a crowded market of programs meant to make your next flight more comfortable — even as airlines seem to be trying their hardest to make your next flight less comfortable.

American Airlines hasn’t made any recent modifications to the aircraft in which Harrison was flying. Even so, if he was uncomfortable, he had two options. He could have paid for an upgrade to business class, if available. And, “He could have definitely asked the flight attendant to be reseated within the same cabin,” said Ross Feinstein, an American Airlines spokesman.

Harrison isn’t imagining this. Across the industry, airlines are constantly looking for new ways to move the seats closer together. Of course, the more seats they can fit on the plane, the more money they can make. It was only a matter of time before technology offered a way to fight back.

The first significant salvo in that battle came in 2013, when Routehappy launched. It scores flights based on a variety of criteria, including legroom, width and amenities such as power outlets. If Harrison had consulted Routehappy’s oracles pre-flight, they would have advised him to check out the United flight from Philadelphia to Barcelona via Newark, which scored an impressive 8.2 out of a possible 10, compared with American’s paltry 6.2.

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Routehappy improved on SeatGuru’s more linear recommendations, which offers seat measurements for planes and allows air travelers to quickly access that information through a smartphone app. SeatGuru can also warn of substandard seats. It would have cautioned a passenger like Harrison about the last row of economy class, in which he found himself. That seat, it would have noted, has “limited recline” and the proximity to the lavatories and galleys may be “bothersome.” That’s a nice way of putting it.

Those are by no means the only tools used by comfort-seeking airline passengers. For example, ExpertFlyer, an established flight-search tool, offers features that help you find a more desirable seat. Its Seat Alerts app (iOS and Android) automatically searches for available seats based on preferences like aisle or window, and notifies you the moment it finds your request. It can also search for a seat on a completely booked flight. ExpertFlyer also overlays SeatGuru information about seat dimensions, allowing you to select your seat based on your space or amenity requirements.

Of course, despite such efforts to find your best seat option, you still may find yourself sitting in a less than desirable seat. And that’s the idea behind Seateroo, an app that lets you swap seats for a price.

Say you’re Harrison, and you’re stuck in seat 36F, the last row of economy class on that Barcelona flight. Either before or after boarding, you fire up Seateroo and find a passenger who is willing to swap seats with you. You negotiate a price (minimum of $5, with a 15 percent service fee deducted from price paid to the other passenger) and swap seats when you’re permitted to move about the cabin. Problem solved.

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Seat switching is a time-honored tradition among air travelers, but until now no one has figured out how to formally monetize the process. It’s unclear how airlines will react to an app that brings the sharing economy to airline seats, but Seateroo’s CEO, Brad Pursel, believes they won’t mind.

“The airlines already have the money from a passenger,” he says. “We’re just opening up the possibility for such a passenger to reduce his or her travel costs.”

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at chris@elliott.org. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

  • AJPeabody

    Do both switchers need to have installed Seateroo? If so, the chance of it working for a passenger in a “bad” seat would be slim unless a major fraction of the passengers on the flight had it on their phones.

  • Very true and what are the chances of the average traveler even knowing about this app. Sorry, Chris, not everyone reads your newsletters, especially not the casual traveler.

  • just me

    The problem will be resolved if We The People elect legislature and executive that has brains and is for The People.
    All it takes is REGULATION and/or inclusion of seat (its size, comfort, space for a human) into the “Contract of Carriage” either by the Regulator or by a court.
    We need to stop supporting the idea that CEO’s of airline industry really know anything useful to The People – their only win is that they snowed board of directors to select them. Nearly anyone can run an airline and make as bad decisions as they reliably always do.

  • BMG4ME

    Somehow news travels. You could have said exactly the same about Seatguru but it’s no secret anymore. Unless the airlines nix it, I can see seateroo becoming very successful, like an ebay for airline seats. My only irritation is that I didn’t think of it first! Of course it will need to become available for Android too in order to really be successful.

  • Donna Gyland

    The airlines DO mind if they notice, as they want you in your original booked seat during take off and landing, in the event of a tragedy, so they can better identify remains…..or so I have been informed by stewardesses, who allow “swaps” during the flight but want you in your assigned seats as mentioned

  • Donna Gyland

    What we need is to lobby as “unsafe, the lack of legroom, etc…but be prepared, the average ticket price will increase as a result…so be careful what you wish for…..

  • just me

    The price may rise $9.60 per seat. I’ll take it. Kindly stop fear-mongering. Please calculate before speaking.
    I took a first long distance flight – PHX to PHL and selected the most expensive airline on this route. The average ticket price was $265
    In coach the airplane has 23 rows of 6 seats in each with 32″ pitch between rows.
    Now – remove one row (i.e. 6 seats) and you gain 32″ to be distributed between the remaining 22 rows. This increases the pitch between rows to 33.45″ – I think it is very big improvement in comfort and safety.
    Assuming 100% load factor all the time – the airline would lose $1590 on 6 lost seat – to recover they would need to get $9.60 on each remaining seat. This is max calculation. There is rarely 100% load so the real loss to the airline is reduced – let say they really did not loose 2 middle seats and the price differential goes down.
    Of course the problem is that to cover the salary of one CEO they need to sell 37735 seats. Greed and irresponsibility is the driver of airlines’ effort to handle people as cattle instead of providing service to people. Allowing deregulation and consolidation the government contributed to that.

  • Donna Gyland

    considering you are not taking into account ancillary charges for bags, etc….I don’t know how you can calculate the exact price, as different classes of service cost different amounts of money…..but you still did not address the bigger issue of being allowed to swap seats, and I am not “fear mongering”. Kindly address that issue. Also, the last time I flew, the airlines have started charging onboard passengers who want to change seat to empty seats, not all airlines, but they are greedy and are pinching every penny, as you pointed out.

  • just me

    Donna – if I offended you I appologize – it was not my goal. For me your claim of ” average price increases” does not trump my calculations that the price may rise less than $10. Thus your baseless claim for me is fear mongering. $10 rise would be trivial.
    Do I included “ancillary” charges – of course I rely on publicly available information of various classes of services and the number given is all inclusive AVERAGE.
    The seat swap will become mute if the seats are made for humans and not for CEO retirement account. The swap charges by the airlines are just a prelude to charging for toilet use. Fortunately the toilets are there because of regulations, so all it takes is to include seats in the regulations – and it is super easy – just include seats spacing and size as safety item.
    The seat swapping is generally verboten before flight takeoff so the airlines have easier time to identify your body in case the current seat spacing prevents you from leaving the airplane in an emergency evacuation. Additional incentive comes from the taxing authority – the add on fees are not taxed and do not contribute to national air industry infrastructure development – so airlines have all the incentives to pile up addon fees of all sort. The end game is to sell flight for $1 and add hundreds in ancillary fees that avoid having to pay for the airport development.
    Bottom line – the airlines will intercept the seat swapping stream of income unless we regulate them for our safety and health sake.

  • Donna Gyland

    you did not offend me…and I get your point, but you are working on the assumption that all seat prices are the same from hour to hour , let alone day to day, or week to week,,,,I can sell airline tickets for $150 one day, and on the same flight two days later it could be $500…it is capacity controlled….and yes, I sell tickets, I am in the travel industry and I agree with a lot of what you are saying, not meaning to offend you, but there is quite a bit of uncertainty with airline pricing….so, then to get back to the subject of swapping. so you swap after takeoff? and do yo go back to your original seat for landing?

  • just me

    The price I quoted is the AVERAGE price for the whole 2014 year on the route I used and it includes ALL the tickets sold for that route for the given airline. I am not assuming the prices do not change – of course they do change – but the cost to fly and amortize equipment is fixed. So all those prices are more or less super artificial and all are the cream for the airline. This is why I used the AVERAGE price which reflects reality better. In other words your 150 one day and 500 the other are all included, capacity control is included, class of service is included and both front and the back of the plane classes are also included.
    I never seen anyone going back to their original seats for landing. But I have seen many agents allowing seat swaps before take off, but many more telling people that they can swap after take off.

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