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

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.

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

Turns out there’s a difference between having a seat 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.

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.

It’s about the money.

“I purchased the tickets and the American Airlines site, and 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 seat 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?

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.

This is part of a bigger process called “unbundling” in which airlines are separating everything that used to come with an airline seat, including the ability to check luggage, have a confirmed seat reservation, be served a meal and even have the ability to 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.

But parsing the seat and the seat reservation is bordering on the absurd. It doesn’t cost an airline anything extra to confirm a seat, 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.

But worst of all, asking passengers to pay for a confirmed seat 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.

Maybe — just maybe — the unbundling madness has gone too far. Maybe the airline industry needs to look elsewhere for the ancillary revenue it depends on to turn a profit.

(Photo: moonpie/Flickr)