Should a prepaid seat assignment be guaranteed?

If there’s one thing that can be said about the airline industry in 2016, it’s that there are no guarantees.

As the price of oil plummets and the airlines are reporting record profits, none of the fees have gone away. Travel in the economy-class cabin has become increasingly uncomfortable, with U.S. air carriers squeezing in as many seats as possible.

And there are certain passengers who would like to buy their way out of the misery of the economy cabin. Perhaps they don’t have the thousands to throw around on a first-class trans-Atlantic ticket, but they can invest a little more for the guarantee of a roomier seat, one with a bit more legroom.

But there’s that word again: guarantee.

It’s what Marcia Conrad expected when she booked and paid for bulkhead Delta Comfort seats from Baltimore to Belfast more than ten months in advance of departure. She’s taking the trip with her husband to see the Titanic exhibit in August.

“It’s a last hurrah, so to speak, as my husband has been battling cancer for the last two years. He needs the bigger seat, due to his serious health issues,” she says.

Unexpectedly, Conrad found herself at our doorstep.

“I checked on our Delta reservations and found, much to my dismay, that our seats had been given to other passengers and that we had been pushed almost to the back of Comfort Class,” she wrote to our advocacy team. “I immediately phoned Delta and was told that a computer had taken our seats away from us. The young woman with whom I spoke was able to move us a bit closer to the front of the class but she would not give us our original front row seats back.”

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If you pay months in advance for a particular seat upgrade and select your seat, shouldn’t that be guaranteed? Is there nothing a passenger can do beyond crossing his fingers to receive a product that he prepaid for?

It’s the same predicament that Steven Steinberg faces on Norwegian Airlines. He and his wife bought tickets from Los Angeles to London, and long ago paid the additional fees to select economy bulkhead seats. As time went on, Norwegian changed the aircraft from a Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner to the “stretch” 787-9. The newer aircraft can accommodate more passengers and generate more revenue for the airline. When the aircraft switch was made, Steinberg’s row and seat assignment stuck — in name only — but that row and seat is not a bulkhead seat on the new plane. You guessed it — it’s a random economy-class seat.

“Had the airline informed me of the equipment change, I would have immediately selected bulkhead seats,” he tells us. “Now, it’s too late. The seats are gone. I paid for bulkhead seats, and it’s an easy fix. But they won’t fix it.”

Ten years ago, it seemed pretty easy to get an upgrade to business class or to a better economy seat without much trouble. Now, even when you pay the fees that have sent airline profits soaring, you don’t know what you’ll get until you get to the gate for boarding.

These seat assignment cases are challenging from an advocacy standpoint, because until the flight has already left, there is no certainty. The airline could still potentially correct the situation. I have more than once told a passenger, “I can’t fix a problem that hasn’t happened yet. You’re anticipating the problem. You’ll have to advocate for yourself and come back for a refund if it doesn’t work out.”

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But it shouldn’t be that way. When a product is advertised and a consumer pays for it, in full and in advance no less, the consumer should feel relatively certain that there won’t be any unpleasant surprises.

In Conrad’s case, we contacted Delta on her behalf. She wrote to me this morning in distress.

Our situation with Delta has gone from bad to worse.

Because I requested that we be seated closer to our son and daughter-in-law on the flights from Baltimore to Atlanta and from Atlanta to Baltimore, we were removed from our front row Comfort Plus seats and put back into Coach Class. Yes, we are now seated with our son and daughter-in-law but I sure did not want to be ousted from my front, Comfort Plus class back into Coach.

A man from Delta contacted me and said that he would get our front row Comfort Plus seats back for us on the flights from Atlanta to Dublin and back again. I have never heard from him again. A woman from Delta contacted me and gave me a very hard time but then I was sure she said that our original seats had been restored to us. I went onto the Delta website and saw that she had plunked me and my husband into the front row in the center of the plane — that row has four seats across and we were stuck into the two center seats. With my husband’s situation, I cannot have him sitting next to a person I don’t know, a person who might be coughing or sneezing or ill in some other way. My husband’s immune system is a bit compromised. I had us in the very first two seats of a two seat row with me on the aisle and my husband next to the window where no one could cough or sneeze on him. So, I went back in and took other seats that are at least in that two seat section of double seats next to the windows.

My stance is still that I bought a particular product, I immediately paid for that particular product, I was sent confirmation that I owned that particular product and then it was taken away from me with no word at all. I believe that when a person buys and pays for a product in full, the company from which the product was purchased has no right to come back and snatch the product back from the customer.

And that’s exactly what it feels like to Conrad and Steinberg. The airlines tricked them into believing they’d get those seats — tricked them by taking their hard-earned money — and then took the seats away.

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The customer service games only add insult to injury. If the airlines can’t guarantee seats, perhaps they should stop collecting fees for them, until the time of boarding. Nobody likes broken promises. But it sure does help the bottom line.

Should a prepaid seat assignment be guaranteed?

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Jessica Monsell

A writer and natural advocate, Jessica joined our consumer advocacy effort following a decade of work on behalf of air crash victims at one of the nation's largest plaintiffs' law firms. She has lived in Europe and Asia, but now calls Charleston, S.C. home.

  • Alan Gore

    It goes without saying that if you pay for a premium upgrade and for whatever reason it can’t be provided, you should get your upgrade fee back. I don’t know why this is even a controversy – are airlines claiming some new ‘right to cheat’?

  • Maxwell Smart

    for those of you who voted yes, you obviously didn’t think about it.
    Aircraft are switched all the time & not talking months in advance, but rather at short notice, when an aircraft goes U/S, that’s unserviceable, meaning it can’t be “FIXED” quickly.
    Many aircraft that seem similar, have different seating configurations at the same airline.
    I would rather have an aircraft that’s airworthy & lose my original seat, than have an aircraft, that might almost be airworthy.
    If aircraft are changed well in advance, then airlines should try to accommodate paid seating upgrades, but that’s not always possible.

  • Mel65

    I voted yes but with caveats. Of course, if the plane doesn’t change and someone with a more pressing need (say someone in a wheelchair who really does need that aisle, bulkhead seat, etc…) doesn’t come along, then sure they should be guaranteed and if they’re changed for a legitimate reason, they should be refunded or exchanged for like seats to the extend possible and the passenger notified immediately. The onus shouldn’t be on the passenger to constantly check their reservation for their assignment daily. What’s the point of taking money for something if it isn’t? And it’s not like they auto-refund you if they DO take away a plus seat you’ve paid for and it’s a b*tch to try to get that $ back!


    Bulkhead seats on most carriers are not guaranteed for the most part until you board the plane. And even then you can be moved. Priority goes to the wheelchair bound, those with service animals, and those with similar circumstances. (I got moved earlier this year for a man whose leg was in a cast. He could not get the leg in his row–though he tried.) Does not matter if you have paid, you can be moved to accommodate them. I am not excusing DL or Norwegian, just stating what most airlines will do as needed.

  • Mel65

    I’ve had that happen and I’m okay with it. If I pick a seat for comfort and someone else has a “need” for that seat, I’m going to not be dancing my way up the aisle to my less comfy seat but I’d be okay with it, but my refund should be prompt and courteous and automatic if it happens. Yeah, I know, I’m a dreamer…but I’m not the only one…

  • John Baker

    I put this in the same category as itinerary changes. The airline sells me an exact product (either a certain set of flights or an exact seat(s)) which they can change on any whim but I can’t change. Sorry that’s not how the world work.

    If seats are really going to be “we’ll put you where we want to put you,” don’t allow someone to select an exact seat. Of course, that is going to adversely effect revenue since that implicitly what they are selling.

  • Tricia K

    If you take my money for the “upgraded” seat and then change your aircraft, at the very least, you need to refund my money. I know the airlines claim the new assignments are done by computer, but I’m not completely convinced. As someone else said, if it’s someone who is in a wheelchair, I don’t mind giving up my seat. But what if it’s simply due to ine’s status? If they want to hold back certain seats for that purpose, that’s fine, but don’t sell them to me and then take them back later. I book some flights way in advance to get the seat that I want. I now have to babysit my reservation to make sure any changes to the aircraft don’t leave me stuck in some miserable middle seat. I pay for the so-called upgrade to economy comfort on Delta (so-called because they used to include that extra 4″ of legroom with my ticket until they learned we would pay to get it back) because I have a bad outcome from knee replacement surgery and the lack of leg room in the regular coach seats can make it very difficult for me to sit on the airplane for the duration, let alone walk the next day. As for the argument of a safer plane due to mechanical or other issues, of course I’ll choose safety. It’s not about safety when they switch in a different plane three months before departure–that’s more about profits when they realize they could fill a larger plane based on demand.

  • Peter Varhol

    In my experience, airlines don’t change equipment “all the time.” It’s happened to me once in about 10 years, when Delta swapped out a 747 for a 777. This meant fewer seats, and Delta called to ask if I could take a later flight (as it happened, I couldn’t). I managed to retain an economy comfort seat (and the Delta 777s are one of my favorite aircraft).

    And changing equipment rarely has to do with airworthiness. More often, it is a matter of “right-sizing” the equipment to the expected passenger load, especially out of hubs that have multiple configurations on hand. And that’s when problems like this arise.

    I’ve said it before, but sticking with one airline or alliance, and gaining some level of status gives you a certain leverage in such situations. As long as I am polite, I’ve found that Delta does its best to try to accommodate me when changes occur. I know many people prefer finding the absolute cheapest ticket regardless of airline, but it can make sense to occasionally pay a few dollars more in order to get that leverage when you need it.

  • Chris_In_NC

    … Then airlines should NOT be allowed to charge a premium to be assigned a bulkhead seat, if they are not guaranteed. Once you charge a premium, you lose the right to your argument.

  • jayne bailey holland

    If they take away your paid for seat, they should refund your seat assignment money. NO matter what! you didn’t get what you paid for, its stealing.

  • Pegtoo

    thanks for the smile!

  • Jeff W.

    I think one of the problems is that “bulkhead” is not a class of seat. It is a location on the plane. You may be paying for a bulkhead seat, but in reality you are paying for Economy Plus, Comfort, or whatever.

    And yes, equipment changes for a variety of reasons and then the seat shuffle begins. As long as you still have the seat in the same class, then the airline has fulfilled its obligation. If you are bumped to the back, then you should get a refund.

  • Tired_Guy

    If an airline can commoditize portions of their product (allow customer selection of seats at a additional price, charge for carryons, luggage etc), publicize this ability and promote it as an option and then ignore those selections after taking the money, it sounds like theft to me as they took money for something and failed to deliver. Maybe not in the airline world, but in the real world, if I take your money and promise you something and then give you something else and or nothing at all and resist giving you your money back, I’m a thief. And it seems “giving the money back” simply incentivizes the airlines to continue to steal when circumstances permit. There is no downside to them for taking and not delivering. No punishment. So why not? As for the “chaos” of equipment swapping, I call BS. Seatguru can allow you to see what is special about a seat (first row of a class, bulkhead, in a 2 or 3 or 4 seat row etc). It’s not rocket science to identify those characteristics on every seat and plane in a fleet and in an equipment swap, identify the best equivalents between plane types and to make the customer aware of the issue ahead of time (when possible). That kind of proactive customer service would at least start to justify charging money for the seat assignment.

  • Alan Gore

    But people do pay for specific locations within a class such as aisles and bulkheads, with specific prices attaches for these upgrades.


    The only time I paid and lost my paid seat on DL I had the refund in 3 days. Did not have to request–just showed up. Nearly gave me heart failure…..


    Delta does not charge yet for specific types of seats–all Delta Comfort are lumped together and you pay based on length of flight. You pay the same for bulkhead, aisle, middle or exit row if they are in the Comfort section of the plane. Not really equitable but that is what DL currently does. (I fly DL a lot because I live in ATL. Occasionally other international carriers but always DL domestic because UA and AA are worse.)

  • AAGK

    As long as I am in the same class of seat then I don’t really care where it is. Comfort v bulkhead comfort wouldn’t be a big deal. This lady seems nitpicky bc she then complained re: proximity to her son and DIL for a short flight. Why? Give DIL a break.

  • MarkKelling

    While I agree that it is difficult for the airlines to swap aircraft on international routes (how many “spare” 777 or other large planes can they have?), I experience the swaps almost weekly on my flights on United. It is usually for the same model plane and UA does have the same layout for all of the same type of plane so the impact is minimal. And several lately have been 737-800 for 320s which is actually an improvement. So yes, it happens “all the time” at least on some airlines.

  • MarkKelling

    Even in those circumstances, the airline needs to ASK the person already assigned to the seat if they are OK with the move. The airlines DON’T ask. Happens to me a lot. While getting another seat in economy plus (or whatever it is called) is usually OK for me as long as it is still an aisle seat, it is annoying when you look at your reservation and the seat you carefully chose is no longer where you will be sitting, especially when they don’t assign you any seat at all!

  • MarkKelling

    United refuses to allow service animals in bulkhead rows.

    A recent flight I saw this. Person with a seeing eye dog (a REAL service animal) had a window seat reservation at the bulkhead and was forced to move to another row because of the dog which they saw as a carry-on item that could not be on the floor. No one was happy about it but none more upset than the dog who went from having a relatively comfortable spot to being forced under the seat in front of the row they ended up on. The dog (a very large German Shepherd) whimpered the entire flight.

  • MarkKelling

    Was that move BEFORE you boarded or was it done after you were on the plane? I find that things requiring refunds go much more quickly on any airline if the event happens before you board and is reflected on your boarding pass. If you are moved once you are already on the plane, you seldom get a new boarding pass which means the seat change is almost never entered into the system to trigger any type of refund (at least oin the airline I fly).

  • MarkKelling

    Was the lady hoping they would upgrade her other traveling partners into Comfort when she stated she wanted to be close to them? It just doesn’t work that way! If they had all paid for Comfort seats and then ended up in Coach, she would have a valid complaint.

  • Why doesn’t Conrad invoke the Air Carrier Access Act? She originally self accommodated but Delta changed her seat. Now that Delta knows of her husbands disability they are required by law to accommodate him.
    A threat of reporting this to the DOT ought to get their attention.

  • cscasi

    Delta doesn’t charge for “preferred seats” as well? They certainly do. I just checked from DFW to ATL and they want $15 extra each way for a “preferred seat”. So, Delta IS charging for “specific types of seats”. Perhaps they waive that if one has status with Delta, but for the ordinary flier, they get charged for those seats.

  • I made reservations in January for a trip I’m starting this Sunday. Three legs each way, and at least 4 times, my paid for seat assignments changed. I don’t normally do that, but I seem to have gotten to a point in my life where comfort is becoming more and more important.

    Having been a reader of this site for years, I’ve become a bit paranoid, so I check my seat assignments quite often, just to make sure. So each time a change occurred, I called and had them reassign my seats back to where they should have been. But I had to check, and no contact from the airline (I did book directly, first time ever).

    In fact, after posting this, going to go check again….

  • Extramail

    It absolutely should be guaranteed. An airline ought to have to move the passengers to the exact type seat when they switch aircraft and before they are allowed to sell a single seat on the new plane. If they are going to play games with their selling of seats, then they ought to be guaranteed. I don’t buy a particular seat at a concert, Broadway show, etc., and then that venue is allowed to move me around. According to the airlines, different seats cost different prices. Then give me the seat I paid for or pay me back for my seat with an additional penalty for moving me.

  • Extramail

    And, they ought to have to pay me a “fee” for taking my seat on top of what I had already paid. But, congress just proved they aren’t going to do squat about airlines since they refused to set seat minimums so the airlines are safe for now.

  • Chris Johnson

    I’m sure most people agree this was a rotten thing for Delta to do in any case. Something that’s unclear here – Marcia Conrad’s family was moved from the Comfort seats, for which she had paid an extra fee, and put in regular Economy seats. Were the extra fees refunded at least? If not, that is bait-and-switch and borderline fraud in my opinion.

  • ctporter

    One of the nice things that Alaska airlines did is use a common numbering system for their aircraft, that way row 6 is always main cabine bulkhead, exit rows are always 16 (non-reclining) and 17 (reclining). They did that to ensure the seats would transfer when an aircraft change had to happen. I like that system, it works well.

  • mbods2002

    There are no protections in place for consumers when it comes to the airlines. They are out of control because they’re allowed to get away with these shoddy business practices. When will it stop? Why should we be at the mercy of a business and have no recourse when there’s a problem? The only help we get is from Chris and team and something is really wrong with that picture.

  • Lindabator

    Unfortunately, NO seat is guaranteed – and especially not bulkhead seats, which I NEVER assign to clients for just that reason — those seats can be given to unaccompanied minors, injured and handicapped at any time they are needed, so the worst choice to make.

  • Lindabator

    doesn’t work when there may have been 20 seats on the other aircraft, but only 12 on this one – SOMEONE will get bumped

  • Lindabator

    They do – you just have to request – I do it for clients who cancel/change all the time

  • Lindabator

    And if you were not in a wheelchair, or travelling without your parent, you will be moved

  • Lindabator

    No they don’t – reed the COC

  • Harvey-6-3.5

    Did you win?

  • Harvey-6-3.5

    While that may be so, I think many of the commentators consider that to be an unfair business practice, because they have paid consideration, in either money or time, or both, for a specific seat. When they do not receive the benefit of their bargain, they feel cheated (and in a world without adhesion contracts, would have easy standing to sue, and maybe even do in our world).

  • lvswhippets

    Most airlines (as I recall) make that very specific about the bulk head seats with a warning that you may be moved for those mentioned by Lindabator which also includes all the wee ones who need the fold down bed (who hopefully sleep)

  • AAGK

    Hm. I didn’t think of that. These days seating is hard enough- she should have left well enough alone. She can’t control where everyone else sits on the rest of the plane:)

  • Nathan Witt

    Okay. Then issue prompt, automatic refunds to everyone who paid an additional charge for a better seat and was denied it. Everyone understands that stuff happens, but when the airline keeps the money, it starts to look deliberate.

  • Nathan Witt

    Yeah – I don’t think anyone needs to “reed” the COC to understand that Mark is talking about what it appropriate, rather than what is legally mandated.

  • Vector

    As the expression goes, airlines are “laughing up their sleeves”.
    At us.
    They’ve gone from marginal operations at best to insanely profitable…by putting their hands in our pockets
    under the pretext of high fuel costs…then under that cover, charging for everything but the foul air
    we breathe when we fly on their aircraft.
    And we let them do it to us. Constantly. Dishonestly. Proud that we’re loyal fliers.
    More fools us.


    After I boarded. I insisted that DL give me a boarding pass with the new seat number on it so that I had documentation to back up my refund request. DL was faster than me and obviously had started the process when I asked for the new boarding pass.


    DL, the airline I fly most often, puts them in the bulkhead for that very reason. I find it odd that UA would not allow it. After all the FAA does allow service animals in bulkhead.


    They do charge, but do not separate bulkhead and exit row as separate charges. As I noted you pay based on the length of the flight and not for a specific location such as bulkhead. I do pay for those seats.

  • MarkKelling

    OK, they don’t NEED to. But they SHOULD ask.

  • MarieTD

    In that case, they shouldn’t refuse to refund the fare difference, with cash, not vouchers. The difference should be what it was at the time booked, not a walk-up fare.

  • MarieTD

    No, they don’t always. Cancelling or changing is different from being bumped or downgraded. Airlines are very reluctant to refund in cash without twiddling with the fares on the day you may have booked versus what would be a walk-up fare. You may be in the business, but those of us on the other end have different experiences than yours. Many of us wind up on this board looking for resolution. If they take your money, they have no right to keep it after downgrading you to a lower class fare. Sorry my terminology may be incorrect, but it’s the best I can do.

  • wilcoxon

    I’m tall so, on a lot of aircraft, if I get put in coach, I *CAN’T* fly. I would have loved if Congress had put seat size restrictions in but, to me, they wouldn’t have gone far enough anyway. An airline should be required to have seats that tall people can sit in at a reasonable cost (on a few airlines, even Economy Comfort (or whatever they call it) are too small). Even an average height male will be very uncomfortable on a lot of planes in coach these days.

  • MarieTD

    In any case, the term “guaranteed” should not be allowed to be used by the seller when, in fact, nothing is guaranteed. It’s lost its meaning when it comes to air travel. All that’s promised in reality is to get from point A to point B.

  • Jason J Olson

    This is certainly a complex problem with no easy answer that will satisfy all travelers. At best could be better training for the call center to help assist customers with understanding all of their options…

    There are various reasons why a person can (and should) be legitimately bumped from their previously assigned seat (purchased or not). However, it should be very EASY to receive a refund for the “premium” fee if the traveler does not like the change. That could/should be law… you paid for a service, didn’t receive what you paid for, and get your money back and go back to economy…

    To the airlines defense, it is impossible for them to automatically know your intentions or rationals for the seats you’ve chosen, and if they didn’t know it was for medical reasons, again they cannot take that into account. I have a client who always must have the aisle on is left, due to a left knee injury. It is impossible for the computer to know that, if they need to change his seat, to ensure he is still in a “aisle on the left” seat configuration. The only solution here is to ensure you’re being proactive in monitoring your flights. Some airlines will notify you of such changes, as well as several phone apps or websites.

    An airline will not always be able to accommodate your preferences, which is why better training is needed for the call center, so you can know your options. For example, if your flight was cancelled, and you’re bumped to another flight, you can often choose another flight that does have the seat availability you’re looking for.

    Remember that the airline often does not have direct contact information of the traveler, so they cannot simply call the people in the seats you want and ask if they’ll change seats — however that IS something the gate agent can do for you at the airport since the other passengers will be in the terminal with you.

    I think some confusion was also introduced with the travelers asked to be near family – which they accommodated, and seemingly reasonably too, but it seems like assumptions were made and not clarified in communication. If the rest of the family is in economy, and you want to be close to them – then clearly you’re going to move further away from bulkhead… you cannot be closer to economy AND closer to bulkhead – they’re mutually exclusive.

  • Mel65

    So, unless the person in the wheelchair, or with an oxygen tank, or missing a limb, or blind and traveling with a seeing eye dog, anticipated their need to fly to a funeral before it happened, and got to the website and purchased their ticket first, they can lump it. Got it.

  • The Original Joe S

    ?????? Your posting doesn’t make sense.

    I’m just as handicapped, and I make my reservations far enough in advance so that I can travel without extreme pain. So, since I am also in need of the space, AND I make reservations far enough in advance, it’s up to the airline to make accommodations for those other people to be seated in a place commensurate with their maladies. However, it shouldn’t be at MY expense. If I anticipate that my 19th grandmother is gonna die only 1 day before she does, do I get to bump someone else out of the seat who reserved it far in advance to accommodate their own problems?
    In any case, the airline I use for most of my trips offers a better class of carriage, and I PAY for it. WOW! What a concept! PAY for a good seat! Gee, taking responsibility for oneself. Unheard of……

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