This traveler gets exactly what she requested — and then rejects the resolution

Beverly Murphy wants American Airlines to honor her reservation and assign her the premium economy seat she paid for. Can our advocates persuade American to give Murphy her preferred seat?

Question: My husband and I booked a round-trip flight on American Airlines from Boston to Paris, including flight insurance. Because we’re both elderly with medical issues (my husband has had a total right knee replacement and I am claustrophobic), we reserved premium economy bulkhead aisle seats to accommodate our conditions.

But American notified me that my seat on our return flight, which was paid for with frequent flyer mileage points, was reassigned to another passenger because of “equipment changes” and can’t be changed back. My husband’s seat, paid for with cash, was unchanged. We were also told that we have to pay an additional amount because of the change.

My reassigned seat is a middle seat that provides no window and has a wall directly in front of it. It has no forward or side visuals and no open space at one side. This is an unbearably confining space for me, and I simply cannot sit in it.

It’s taken us more than 20 years to accumulate enough American Airlines’ mileage points to afford this trip. Given our departure in a few weeks, I have neither the adequate time nor expertise to effectively resolve this situation on my own.

With your assistance, I remain hopeful our long-awaited retirement trip can be prevented from being overshadowed by the fear generated as a result of American’s seemingly indiscriminate reassignment of my reserved seat.

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Please help. — Beverly Murphy, Plymouth, Mass.

Answer: I’m sorry for the scare you received with that notification of the seat change. Reserving airline seats to accommodate medical needs, only to be told that they were reassigned and you can’t have them back, certainly dampens the anticipation of a pending vacation that you waited more than 20 years to take.

But when our advocates took a closer look at your paper trail — a long string of emails insisting that you needed those particular seats — we were confused. And you asked for a resolution that would have required you to sit in seats that didn’t accommodate your disabilities. When we brought this to your attention, you rejected the resolution we obtained for you.

American Airlines’ International General Rules Tariff indicates that the airline “does not guarantee allocation of any particular space in the aircraft.” You were never guaranteed the seats you reserved.

And when our advocates looked at your revised reservation, we saw that you and your husband were confirmed in a bulkhead exit row, the best in premium economy class, with only two seats in the front row behind business class, not in “middle seats” as you indicated in your help request.

We emailed you a screenshot of the seating assignments, showing the seats you were assigned and the remaining seats in premium class available. You responded that you and your husband would like to be reseated in another, non-bulkhead row in premium class, and when you tried to change your seats online, you were told that the change would cost you more money.

Related story:   Wait, I never bought flight insurance!

Although we wouldn’t normally advocate a reseating request, we agreed to contact American Airlines on your behalf to find out what had happened to your reservation. (Executive contact information for American Airlines is available on our website.)

Then we found out something even more strange. Your original seating assignment had never been changed, and you were still seated in the same seats you had reserved.

It isn’t clear why you were sent a notification that your seat had been changed when it wasn’t. But our contact at American Airlines, who is not a reservations agent, agreed to reseat you in the non-bulkhead row you requested at no cost as a gesture of goodwill.

But it turned out that the new seats were in an exit row. Passengers with medical or mobility issues are disqualified from sitting in them. And you indicated that you weren’t interested in the offer when you found out that those seats don’t recline.

Ultimately, after sending us and American a long string of emails complaining that your medical needs required you to sit in the seats you had reserved, you will be sitting in those seats.

The moral of your story is that when making a request for help, you need to be clear about the problem and the nature of the help you want before you ask for it. Otherwise, we may end up spending our time in ways that don’t benefit anyone — including you.

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

  • LeeAnneClark


    I got lost.

    Love the pic, tho. That’s pretty much the expression on my face after reading this!

  • Reporter1

    LOL. Thanks for the laugh!

  • This one exhausted me … wow, you certainly went far above AND beyond with assistance. What she forgot to mention at the beginning … in addition to being elderly, they are ignorant travelers. Whew!

  • Dutchess

    I almost stopped reading when they talked about being elderly and with mobility issues and sitting in a freaking exit row. Holy cow…really???

  • gpx21dlr

    Love the photo, even if a stock photo. The OP is confused herself and wouldn’t be happy with any seat(s). Offer her the 1st officer seat.

  • Altosk

    I got confused…and I just witnessed a woman use a wheelchair to get to the gate but manage to get seated in the exit row. o__O

  • Altosk

    I just witnessed a woman use a wheelchair to get to the gate and then she was seated in an exit row. I guess rules don’t apply anymore because airlines are too afraid to be shamed by “disability advocates.”

  • Attention All Passengers

    Some people just keep digging a deeper hole.

  • cscasi

    I have noticed more and more people getting pushed up to the gate in wheelchairs, which allows them to pre-board. But, what is strange is that they always seem to be accompanied by anywhere from two to four or five family members who want to board with them and not have to wait in line. I have also noticed several who have arrived in wheelchairs on transatlantic flights I have been on, get placed at their assigned seats and then to see them up wandering around the aircraft during the flight (not showing much, if any type of disability that would require a wheelchair. At the end of the flight, I have even seen some who get up and walk off the aircraft, rather than wait on a wheelchair.
    I guess, for some passengers, it is whatever one can get away with

  • LeeAnneClark

    Did you ever hear about all the people at Disneyland who faked disabilities, or rented wheelchairs for their kids in order to get disabled passes so they could jump the line to the rides? Rather than wait four hours to ride Splash Mountain, they would wait no more than a few minutes.

    Yeah, people do that. (I did read that Disney has been cracking down on that practice of late, but I don’t know how successfully.)

    That being said – my 81-year-old mother doesn’t need a wheelchair to get around, but she always gets wheelchair assistance at the airport. She walks with a cane and is losing her vision, but once on the plane she is perfectly able to walk up and down the aisles without appearing markedly disabled. So you really can’t just assume that someone is “faking it” because their disability isn’t plainly evident. My mother would not be able to get herself to the gate, and needs assistance boarding and finding her seat, so she rightfully makes use of the airport wheelchair assistance.

  • bpepy

    I am recovering from a broken hip and I have requested a wheelchair to get to the gate. I can walk, but not very far and certainly not fast. But I can walk down the ramp to the plane and can stand and walk in the plane. So I may be one of the people you and others are complaining about. But I do need the wheelchair to get through the airport. You shouldn’t make assumptions about why people use a wheelchair. I never want to sit in an exit row, tho!

  • greg watson

    gotta love it………..reads like a Shakespearean play……………………’much ado about nothing’

  • Annie M

    You should have stopped when you found out she had her original seats. She seems very ungrateful and spoiled.

  • michael anthony

    LEANN: Im very glad to see your post. While thete will akwats be fskers, there are many people like your mom who need w/c for long distances. Those with limited eyesight or blind do not always have a dig and a white cane. Walking thru a crowded terminal is very difficult. But in the plane, she counts seat backs so she knows she is 9 seat backs away from the loo. Most people with disability don’t fsje it and it can be very challenging to try and lead a normal life.

  • finance_tony

    Aren’t those referred to by cabin crew as “miracle flights?” Mostly NYC to Florida.

  • Lindabator

    If they have mobility issues, they may wish to utilize the service, as the airline cannot call up one of the carts, as those are under airport control, but they CAN order up the appropriate number of wheelchairs – if you have a mobility issue, bad arthritis or heart/lung issues, this is a viable alternative, and not necessarily a scam

  • Lindabator

    does not mean they are all scammers — if my client who had open heart surgery a couple months ago travels next month with a family of 6, he will have this service, and yes, they also benefit, but they are also there to assist him

  • Lindabator

    perfect example – and I book the use regularly for my clients who can benefit from this type of service for that very reason

  • Lindabator

    and actually, a travel agent can let the airport know just which type of service is needed in advance — from those just finding it difficult, to those with limited mobility, to those completely immobilized – just because another guest cannot SEE the disability, does NOT mean the person in the chair is a faker

  • joycexyz

    Then there are the “miracle flights” from NY to Florida. A lot of folks need wheelchairs to board, but are able to bound off the plane just fine (usually beating everyone else) upon arrival.

  • LeeAnneClark

    My Mom does the same thing – counts seats! She has macular degeneration and is completely sightless in one eye, with the other eye fading. She can still see well enough to be able to read on a kindle with the font at the hugest, meaning about once sentence per page – a lot of scrolling! ;-) which is a huge relief because she’d go crazy without being able to read. But she doesn’t appear blind – you literally cannot tell by looking at her that there is anything wrong.

    Being that she’s in her 80’s with a limp due to hip surgery, people don’t question her need for assistance. But you make an important point – not everyone who has a disability appears disabled, and we can’t jump to conclusions.

    Which makes those who fake disabilities for the convenience of it all the more heinous, right?

  • Lee

    I am thoroughly confused….

  • Lee

    There are many disabilities are that not visible and walking around inside a confined, limited space vs. the many long walks to gates inside an airport are two very different things.

    I would be cautious about presuming anything re: someone’s health. You never know. (As a disability/health advocate, I see many situations where one might think there is no “disability”).

  • y_p_w

    Disney has handled it with a “return pass”. They estimate current wait time and hand a pass to return at that time without waiting in line.

    It hasn’t been acceptable for groups with autism, but it’s OK for disabled who can then do something else and/or sit until the return time. Also, there were teens claiming some disability getting those passes, and it was turning into a mess because of the sheer number of “disabled” guests.

  • y_p_w

    Just as a follow up, Disney explains it better than I can.

    Disney Parks is modifying the current Guest Assistance Card program, which provides access to attractions for guests with disabilities, so it can continue to serve the guests who truly need it. The new program is designed to provide the special experience guests have come to expect from Disney. It will also help control abuse that was, unfortunately, widespread and growing at an alarming rate.

    The new Disability Access Service (DAS) will allow Guests with disabilities at Walt Disney World Resort and Disneyland Resort to receive a return time for attractions based on the current wait time. Guests Relations at the front of each park will continue to assist Guests and provide assistance that is responsive to their unique circumstances.

  • LonnieC

    What a colossal waste of your time and effort….

  • Altosk

    And sit in the exit row? I thought one must have full mobility and no physical impairments to assist the crew?

  • Altosk

    Fortunately, Di$ney stopped some of the abuse in the past few years. My wife used to be a CM there a long time ago and when the GAC (Guest Assistance Card) was replaced by the newer, less abuse-able one, all of the people on her “CM Facebook Groups” were rejoicing.

    People abused that crap so much…still do, but at least they can’t get immediate access. One famous story that was posted on one of the Di$ney sites was a mother bragging that her son rode Space Mountain 50 times in one trip with a GAC because he had ADHD and there fore got the GAC, he was able to run through the FP line as many times as he wanted to.

    Now, they have to get a “return time” which is equal to the time of the current wait. That’s so much more fair…and less open to abuse.

  • Lindabator

    they may have a difficult time getting around the airport long distances, but if they can open the door, they still are able to sit in the exit row — have a client with bad arthritis that walking makes worse, but he is strong as an oxe otherwise, and does sit in the exit row occassionally

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