Want a better seat on the plane? There’s an app for that

To say H. Robert Harrison’s recent flight from Philadelphia to Barcelona was uncomfortable might be something of an understatement.

Harrison, a physician from Hilton Head, S.C., managed to squeeze his 5-foot-6, 148-pound frame into a narrow aisle seat. But whenever he dozed off, his left elbow slid off the thin armrest and a meal cart would slam into it, jolting him awake.

Harrison cursed the airline that would “cram extra seats in the back and make people uncomfortable just to make a few extra dollars.”

Fortunately, there’s an app for that. Several, actually. The latest is Seateroo, a program that launched last Monday that lets passengers swap seats on a plane. They join a crowded market of programs meant to make your next flight more comfortable — even as airlines seem to be trying their hardest to make your next flight less comfortable.

American Airlines hasn’t made any recent modifications to the aircraft in which Harrison was flying. Even so, if he was uncomfortable, he had two options. He could have paid for an upgrade to business class, if available. And, “He could have definitely asked the flight attendant to be reseated within the same cabin,” said Ross Feinstein, an American Airlines spokesman.

Harrison isn’t imagining this. Across the industry, airlines are constantly looking for new ways to move the seats closer together. Of course, the more seats they can fit on the plane, the more money they can make. It was only a matter of time before technology offered a way to fight back.

The first significant salvo in that battle came in 2013, when Routehappy launched. It scores flights based on a variety of criteria, including legroom, width and amenities such as power outlets. If Harrison had consulted Routehappy’s oracles pre-flight, they would have advised him to check out the United flight from Philadelphia to Barcelona via Newark, which scored an impressive 8.2 out of a possible 10, compared with American’s paltry 6.2.

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Routehappy improved on SeatGuru’s more linear recommendations, which offers seat measurements for planes and allows air travelers to quickly access that information through a smartphone app. SeatGuru can also warn of substandard seats. It would have cautioned a passenger like Harrison about the last row of economy class, in which he found himself. That seat, it would have noted, has “limited recline” and the proximity to the lavatories and galleys may be “bothersome.” That’s a nice way of putting it.

Those are by no means the only tools used by comfort-seeking airline passengers. For example, ExpertFlyer, an established flight-search tool, offers features that help you find a more desirable seat. Its Seat Alerts app (iOS and Android) automatically searches for available seats based on preferences like aisle or window, and notifies you the moment it finds your request. It can also search for a seat on a completely booked flight. ExpertFlyer also overlays SeatGuru information about seat dimensions, allowing you to select your seat based on your space or amenity requirements.

Of course, despite such efforts to find your best seat option, you still may find yourself sitting in a less than desirable seat. And that’s the idea behind Seateroo, an app that lets you swap seats for a price.

Say you’re Harrison, and you’re stuck in seat 36F, the last row of economy class on that Barcelona flight. Either before or after boarding, you fire up Seateroo and find a passenger who is willing to swap seats with you. You negotiate a price (minimum of $5, with a 15 percent service fee deducted from price paid to the other passenger) and swap seats when you’re permitted to move about the cabin. Problem solved.

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Seat switching is a time-honored tradition among air travelers, but until now no one has figured out how to formally monetize the process. It’s unclear how airlines will react to an app that brings the sharing economy to airline seats, but Seateroo’s CEO, Brad Pursel, believes they won’t mind.

“The airlines already have the money from a passenger,” he says. “We’re just opening up the possibility for such a passenger to reduce his or her travel costs.”

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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