JustFly charged me $500 for seat assignments — after I paid for my tickets

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When Anne Lederhos needed to purchase air tickets between Boston and Rapid City, S.D., she visited JustFly.com, made a reservation and paid $1,575 for tickets on American Airlines. But when she received her credit card bill, there was also a separate charge for $578, listed as “seat assignments.”

Lederhos claims JustFly.com didn’t disclose charges for seat assignments, and she never had an opportunity to accept or decline the charge. She asked for our help in getting her money back.

Before getting to our attempts to help Lederhos resolve this issue, I was curious how someone could book a ticket and not know what is being charged. So I visited JustFly.com to price a ticket for an upcoming trip I hadn’t yet booked.

On its flight booking screen, JustFly.com gives travelers three seat selection options. They can choose to request any available seat, any aisle seat or any window seat. Below these options is a disclaimer:

Disclaimer: We do not guarantee that your requested seat will be confirmed. The confirmation of the seat you’ve requested is contingent upon the airline’s guidelines for the chosen fare type.

But when a traveler clicks one of the options, a seating chart appears with the supposedly available seats in green. On one flight, I received a note that the seating chart was not available. When selecting each of the three options, my seat selection changed from “Aisle” to “Window” to “Any.” No charge was added to the “Total Seat Selection Price.”

For the return flight, however, the seating chart showed only middle seats available, regardless of which seating option I selected, and when I selected one of those, the site listed the seat assignment, showed that it was a window seat, and a charge of $14.95 was added to the seat selection price.

Here’s where it gets weird: When scrolling down to the “Price Summary,” I notice that the charge for the line item described as “Airline Optional Services – Seats” is $0. Now, if I were an infrequent traveler simply looking for a “good deal,” rather than an advocate writing for a consumer advocacy site, I might simply assume the seats I had selected didn’t involve a fee. But I would be wrong.

When I expanded the line item identified as “Taxes, Fees, and Charges,” I found that in addition to the airport tax, the September 11th security fee, the flight segment tax, and the passenger facility charge, there is also a $14.95 charge for “Seatmap Assignment Fee” that is classified as an agency fee.

JustFly.com doesn’t guarantee this is the seat you will get on the flight though. In the JustFly.com terms and conditions, it includes another disclaimer:

Please note that requesting specific seats, meals, frequent flyers etc. are requests only. The airline reserves the right to make revisions to the seat allocation without notification. All requests should be confirmed with the airline and we cannot guarantee that passengers will be assigned the seats they’ve requested. Furthermore, we are unable to promise that your meal/frequent flyer/other special requests will be confirmed by the airline in question. Please ensure that you contact the airline you’ve booked with in order to confirm the requests you’ve made.

So JustFly.com is charging its customers for passing a request along to an airline.

I found a few other things for which JustFly.com charges its customers that I would get free from the airline. If I book a ticket directly with an airline I have 24 hours to change my mind and cancel the ticket with no penalty. JustFly.com only allows its customers four hours to change their minds.

But wait! If you think you might want the option to change your mind between four hours, one minute and 23 hours, 59 minutes after booking, there is an option: You can pay JustFly.com an additional $20 and have the full 24 hours to change your mind.

I cannot say if this is the case with every flight search on JustFly.com, but on the search I initiated, I found that after adding the additional agency fees and the fee for getting the same 24-hour cancellation policy I would get from booking directly through an airline, I would have paid the same price on both Delta Air Lines and American Airlines and received a seat assignment.

(It’s important to note that travelers also typically receive at least the 24-hour cancellation option at no charge when booking with a traditional travel agent.)

Let’s return to Lederhos’ case. She appealed to JustFly.com for a refund of the seat assignment fees that were not disclosed, but the company didn’t respond. She could have reached out to the contacts we list for Momentum Ventures, JustFly.com’s parent company, which is located in Canada. Instead, she reached out to us, and we tried to contact JustFly.com and Momentum Ventures, which also owns FlightHub.

After multiple attempts to contact Momentum executives, we never received any response. So we reached out to American Airlines for information on the booking. It responded to us quickly, as it almost always does. According to American Airlines, the additional $578 seat assignment charge would have been for its Main Cabin Extra seating, which is available complimentary or discounted to certain elite-level AAdvantage members, but can be purchased by any traveler.

American’s representative also informed our advocate that the cost of the ticket and the seat assignments was processed by the agent, JustFly.com. Since American Airlines didn’t charge Lederhos it couldn’t refund her money.

But the information from American was enlightening. Since JustFly.com refused to respond to us, we cannot confirm what actually happened, but I can speculate based on my experience. JustFly.com doesn’t distinguish on its seat maps which seats are “preferred” and could be charged by the airline and which ones could be free, and in fact, the company never discloses any seat fees, other than the booking fee.

I think when JustFly.com confirmed the seats with American Airlines and learned what the fee would be for those seats, it simply charged Lederhos’ credit card for the seat charges, apparently without notice to Lederhos. Since JustFly.com isn’t interested in telling us its side of the story, I’m inclined to believe her when she says she got no notice.

But because the charge was made by JustFly.com, it would have to be the company to refund her. Since it chose to ignore both Lederhos and us, we’re forced to mark this as a case dismissed.

There are two other things that I think are worth noting about JustFly.com. In our contact list, you’ll find a link to a warning that the Better Business Bureau issued on JustFly.com. Searching Facebook and Twitter will also result in a multitude of complaints about JustFly.com, including ones very similar to Lederhos’.

On its website, JustFly.com claims it is the “#1 Travel Agency by PK & Associates.” Two different internet searches found a CPA and financial management company that caters to small businesses and a structural engineering firm by that name, neither of which seems to have any rankings of travel agencies.

It also lists itself as receiving the “Best e-commerce site award in 2014,” but doesn’t list the source of the award. After multiple searches, I didn’t find any awards that named JustFly.com, but I found so many “best e-commerce” lists that I could be looking at them for weeks beyond the due date of this story.

I’m sorry we couldn’t help Lederhos — we tried. We can help other travelers, however, with a little advice: If you want to use a new travel website (or any new business, actually), do your research. Check with organizations like the Better Business Bureau, look for reviews on sites like Facebook, Twitter, or TripAdvisor, and investigate any claims of “we’re the best,” especially when the source of the claim isn’t provided.

Best of all, you can always type Elliott.org into your browser and search our site for stories and contacts. We might have advocated a case against the company before — and even if we haven’t, you’ll certainly find some information to help you prepare for your next transaction.

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