Does any airline offer free seat assignments anymore?

Robert Swope is one of an ever-expanding group of air passengers who resent having to pay additional fees for confirmed non-middle seats on top of high airfare prices. He asked our advocates for help in obtaining confirmed seats for himself and his wife, but we turned down his request.

Airlines charge passengers every possible fee to make up for lost revenue from deeply discounted tickets, and confirmed seats are among those amenities that no longer are available for free to all passengers.

Swope and his wife booked a tour of Iran through operator MIR Corporation, and purchased tickets on British Airways to fly from Tucson, Ariz., to Istanbul, returning via Rome. They paid an extra $352 to reserve seats in the World Traveller Plus sections of the transatlantic flights. But when Iran stopped issuing visas to American travelers, MIR canceled their bookings. British Airways informed the Swopes that for a change fee of $275 per ticket, they could use the remaining value of their tickets to book new flights within one year of the original purchase date.

The Swopes decided to book a new trip, again through MIR Corporation, from Tucson to Lucca, Italy, returning two months later. But this time there was only one seat available in the World Traveller Plus section. They immediately called British Airways’ customer service, and the representative to whom they spoke indicated that additional seats in the World Traveller Plus section might become available during check-in, 24 hours before departure.

Upon hearing this, the Swopes became concerned that they would not be able to get two seats together in the World Traveller Plus section at all.

As Swope explains:

When we purchased our tickets, we had a reasonable expectation that we would get on the specific flight we booked and that we would have seats on that flight. Now we are not sure. We made many other travel arrangements in England and Italy that were based on that assumption. Costs associated with those arrangements are not likely to be recoverable if we are not able to board the flight.

We believe that BA should not have sold us our tickets when seats in the World Traveller Plus section were not available. What will happen if seats are still not available at check-in? As we indicated, we are likely to lose additional costs because we assumed that if we had a booking, we had seats as well.

Swope emailed Steven Clark, senior vice president for customer services and operations, “explaining our concerns and asking for a satisfactory resolution.” But he didn’t receive a response he considered satisfactory: “[Clark’s] staff got back to us indicating that BA ‘understands your disappointment and concern,’ ‘however, I am unable to offer you specific seat numbers at this moment in time,’ and ‘there are a number of seats that have been restricted that will become available when check-in opens.'”

Swope then posted in our forum about his situation. Our forum members assured Swope that he and his wife were guaranteed seats, but which section of the airplane those seats would be located in was not guaranteed.

So Swope turned to our advocates, asking us to help him and his wife get confirmed seats in the World Traveller Plus sections of the British Airways transatlantic flights. (Executive contact information for British Airways is available on our website.)

Our advocates weren’t able to help the Swopes. We aren’t able to help anyone get confirmed seats on any flight. And we weren’t favorably impressed by Swope’s implication that they would need to cancel their trip altogether and lose all their prepayments if one or both were unable to sit in the World Traveller Plus section.

British Airways’ general conditions of carriage indicate that with regard to seat assignments, “We cannot guarantee that you will be able to sit in any particular seat.”

Neither do any other airlines. American Airlines, Delta and United all allow passengers to select seats at the time of purchase, but none guarantees that those seats will be available at check-in. And while frequent flyers can often confirm seats for free, on codeshare flights airline partners often do not recognize their elite status and require them to pay for confirmed seats.

If the Swopes are unable to sit in World Traveller Plus seats when they fly, it would be reasonable for them to expect a refund for the price differential between the cost of World Traveller Plus seats and the seats they do sit in. But unless British Airways seats them in a lower class and refuses to issue a refund for the price differential, there’s nothing our advocates can do for them at the present time.

We can only wish them a good trip, regardless of where they’re seated.

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