I have a seat but I don’t have a seat assignment

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By Christopher Elliott

If you have a seat on a plane, shouldn’t you also have a seat assignment?

Did you say, “Of course?” Well then, let me introduce you to Judy Field, who is flying from Dallas to Bangkok next month on American Airlines and Japan Airlines.

Picking the seats for her domestic flight was easy, she says, but when it came to the codesharing leg on Japan Airlines — not so much.

“I would not receive an assigned seat on Japan Airlines’ leg from Tokyo to Bangkok,” she says. “They told me they do not assign seats in the class that I purchased until the day of flying.”

The complexities of codesharing

Turns out there’s a difference between having an assignment and having an actual seat, a fact that Dallas-based travelers like Field are all too aware of.

Southwest Airlines, which is headquartered at Love Field, famously doesn’t assign seats. (Critics of that airline like to refer to the procedure as “cattle-call” boarding, but it is, in fact, slightly more organized.) But airlines rarely confirm a reservation without having a seat available. That’s called overbooking, and the Transportation Department requires airlines to compensate customers for selling seats that don’t exist.

So what’s going on here?

One answer: It’s codesharing, the dubious practice of an airline pretending another airline’s flight is its own. That’s how Field could buy a ticket on American from Dallas to Bangkok. American doesn’t fly from Tokyo to Bangkok, but Japan Airlines, its OneWorld codesharing partner, does. And Japan Airlines controls the seats on its plane, ultimately.

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But that is only part of the explanation. When Sallie Rosa booked an American Airlines codeshare flight on British Airways a few weeks ago, she got a more precise answer.

The extra fees in airline bookings

It’s about the money.

“I purchased the tickets and the American Airlines site. It said I’d be able to choose my seats on the next page,” she says. “But when I went there, the seat maps were unavailable.”

Repeated attempts to make a selection were unsuccessful. She decided to write to British Airways, asking for a confirmed seat assignment. In response, the airline assured her that she had a seat on the plane, but that an assignment would cost her extra.

“British Airways has launched a new service to give our customers more control over their seating options,” the airline said in an email. “Customers are now able to choose to pay for their general seating any time from the time of booking. They can also secure exit row seats between 4 and 10 days prior to travel.”

It added, “We introduced a charge so that those choosing to use this additional service were able to do so without passing on extra costs to those who don’t.”

Well, isn’t that thoughtful of them?

The rising costs of airline extras

Rosa paid an extra $318 for seats. She’s traveling with two kids, and “I would utterly panic if I arrived and had no seats,” she adds.

Airlines are part of a larger process called “unbundling,” where they separate everything that used to accompany an airline seat, including the ability to check luggage, make a confirmed reservation, receive a meal, and even bring a carry-on bag. Air carriers see these “extras” as revenue opportunities, and they’re not shy about asking you, their valued customers, for more. (Related: In travel, what you see isn’t always what you get.)

But parsing the seat and the reservation is bordering on the absurd. It doesn’t cost an airline anything extra to confirm for starters. It also unfairly targets the kind of air travelers who can least afford to pay for the “luxury” of a confirmed seat: families with young children. (Here’s how to survive a long flight in economy class and avoid jet lag.)

But worst of all, asking passengers to pay for a confirmed reservation suggests that if you don’t pony up the cash, you may not have a seat on the aircraft at all, sending air travelers like Rosa into a tizzy.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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