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.

  • Hanope

    Did Swiss have record of her request for a bassinet? If so, then its clearly their fault that somehow the passenger ended up in a middle seat, where the bassinet was not located. At least in my experience, the airlines require notification of the need for a bassinet in advance, because they don’t always stock them on the plane. If the airline was aware of the bassinet request (whether “in writing” or not), then they had to know the seat assignment was wrong.

    Can you imagine being that aisle seat passenger? Your choice is to live with a bassinet and baby in front of you the entire time, or a middle seat. Not a great choice.

  • sirwired

    In this case, since the parents needed to sit next to the bassinet, they should not have been charged. But

    I have no problem with the idea of charging for a seat assignment. Some seats are clearly more desirable than others, and I don’t see anything inherently unreasonable with charging extra for those better seats. (Or charging for a seat assignment anywhere, and letting people decide for themselves what those better seats are.)

    Now, I do think that parties should be able to sit in contiguous seats free of charge; though not necessarily great contiguous seats… If nothing else, it’d cut down on the boarding time hassle of re-asssembling families and reduce the shouted conversations.

  • The Original Joe S

    Free Sound REcorder. Get the prevaricators on the hard drive. Ask the name of the prevaricator, and state the date and time of the call.

  • cscasi

    It is a shame this happened; not only for the couple but I can only imagine what the passenger in the end seat (aisle I assume) felt like with a bassinet parked in front of him/her. Of course, I am sure the passenger did not want to give up his/her seat for whatever reason, but what a mess.
    Glad they got the seat fees refunded, but this does not speak well for Swiss.

  • ArizonaRoadWarrior

    “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.”

    It wasn’t disclosed in the article but I am guessing that the OP was flying on an Airbus A330-300 or A340-300 sitting in the middle section (seats D, E, F or G). While it is true that the bassinet could be affixed to Seat D or G (the aisle seats)…the reason is safety…a bassinet could block access to the passengers sitting in Seat E or F in case of an emergency departure.

    When our son was still sitting in his car seat on airline flights and we were sitting in domestic economy (our seats were A, B & C or D, E & F), we were told by the FAs that our son’s car seat have to be in the window seat for safety reason regardless if one of his parents was sitting in the window seat. Our son’s car seat didn’t extend past the seat so it won’t have impeded someone from getting the past the seat. I know a few individuals at America WestUS Airways and they showed me the policy.

    Regardless of the policy to charge fees for seat assignment, the real problem is poor software design.
    I have been on several flights where children under the age of 10 were assigned exit row seats. If you have a person in your party that is under 16, the seat assignment software should not allow you to select an exit row seat. If you have a lap child, the seat assignment software should not allow you to select an exit row seat. If you are traveling with an infanttoddler with hisher own seat, the seat assignment software should only allow a Window seat if that is your safety policy.

  • ArizonaRoadWarrior

    Since there are only four seats in the middle section (seats D, E, F or G) of an Airbus A330-300 or A340-300, the OP could have asked the passenger in seat D if they want seat F (or passenger in seat G to sit in Seat E). The OP could say something like “I know that it isn’t an aisle seat but I need to get up with my baby several time during the flight and I don’t want to wake you if you are sleeping.” Most people will probably trade their seat so they can sleep.

  • AAGK

    So Swiss argued that she paid an extra $99 for a middle seat, with a straight face? Of course the rep misinformed her. Perhaps she could have double checked but I would have believed the agent, as well. Glad she received the refund.

  • AAGK

    It’s not poor software design. It is a poor management decision. The software was designed to reflect this.

  • MF

    I flew Swiss Air from Zurich to Chicago last year & it was right up there with Spirit with the money grab & had the seat pitch/legroom of our 3 major cattle carriers, moo.

  • jsn55

    The mental image of flying hours and hours to Europe with someone else’s baby hooked onto the bulkhead in front of you is hilarious. It must have been an uncomfortable flight for most participants, but of course the baby didn’t care. Glad she got a refund.

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