Why did I pay Swiss an extra $99 for a middle seat?

Shelley Benjamin thought she’d paid $99 for an aisle seat reservation on a Swiss flight to Zürich. But then she tried to find room for her baby.

Question: My husband, three-month-old, and I recently flew from San Francisco to Zürich, Switzerland, with Swiss Airlines. Swiss charges for seat assignments. They will give a bassinet seat for free, but charge for a companion.

I paid $99 each way for my husband to sit next to us, but requested that we have the two end seats so that I could have a bit more privacy to breastfeed, and so that we didn’t have to continually step over strangers every time we needed to change the baby’s diaper.

The customer service rep denied this, saying we could only have the two middle seats because the bassinet only attached to the middle seat.

When we boarded, we found that not only was this untrue, but the bassinet could only be affixed to the end seats. So, not only we were squished in the middle and having to continually climb over the other passengers, but we also had to set our baby in front of strangers who were as unhappy about the situation as we were.

I paid for two seat assignments. I paid for my husband to sit next to me, but didn’t exactly get to pick my own seat. The Swiss representative said we had to sit in the two middle seats because that’s where the bassinet was to be affixed. Because we were not given our requested seats for this situation, I wanted a refund of the $99 fee we had to pay. Can you help? — Shelley Benjamin, Sacramento, Calif.

Answer: Swiss shouldn’t have charged you anything for your seat assignments. This practice of charging extra for an assigned seat just seems like a money grab, especially when you’re just trying to sit next to your three-month-old.

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But if you agreed to pay the fee, and Swiss agreed that you would sit in an aisle seat, then that’s where you should have been seated. Your husband ended up in a middle seat because of incorrect information given to you by a Swiss representative. I definitely think a refund is in order.

Here’s the problem: There’s no written record of the representative giving you the information about your bassinet. So it’s really your word against the word of a Swiss employee. And who do you think Swiss is going to believe? That’s right, it’s not you.

I was fascinated by your subsequent correspondence with Swiss. The airline defended its seating charges, noting that the fees offer all customers “the opportunity to reserve a preferred seat when they book their flight.” In the past, Swiss notes, this was not available to all customer segments when making a reservation. But in 2014, “these restrictions were removed.”

“Upon payment of a fee, customers booking a flight will then be able to determine their seat as far in advance as 11 months before departure,” the representative said. “Swiss is thus responding more directly to the individual needs of customers.”

Yeah, right.

I think you should have called Swiss’ bluff and showed up without a paid assignment. Would the airline have seated you apart? I don’t think so.

A brief, polite written appeal to the airline might have worked. I list the names, numbers and email addresses of all the Swiss customer service executives on my consumer advocacy site. But please, no more phone conversations with the airline about this issue.

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I contacted Swiss on your behalf. It re-evaluated your request and decided to reimburse you for your seat assignment.

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.

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