For some reason, passengers still think they’re being scammed by airlines when it comes to seat assignments.
They feel that way despite all the helpful comments from industry insiders who say the flying public should just read the fine print when they book a ticket. And they feel that way despite the argument that charging extra for seat assignments represents the free market at its best.
When, oh when, will people learn from these wise capitalists?
Consider what happened to Suzanne McMurtrey. First, she tried to make flight arrangements on American Airlines for her son to visit his cousin.
“I confirmed the flight online,” she remembers. “Then the pop-up screen came up showing no available seats — except for the upgraded seats. Concerned that he didn’t have an assigned seat, I paid $31.98 for each leg of his flight. He had school the next day and couldn’t afford to be bumped and miss the flight.”
Surely, American Airlines knows that the way in which it displays its seat maps leaves consumers with the impression that if they don’t pony up the money for a preferred seat, they won’t have a seat on the flight.
No? You have to be kidding.
The second incident happened when McMurtrey and her family of four were flying to Montana for the holidays. This time, they were on United Airlines.
“The seat selection popup appeared, showing only three available seats,” she says. “None of them together.”
She picked three seats.
“When I went to book the fourth seat, there were none available — once again, only the upsell seats. So once again, I was forced into buying a seat, which increased the final price,” she says.
“How can this be legal?” McMurtrey asks. “It has nothing to do with us sitting together or not reading the fine print. This has to do with the airlines giving the impression that, unless you buy a seat, you’re not getting on that airplane.”
Ah, how can this be legal? First, the Department of Transportation obviously doesn’t think this kind of aggressive upselling is an unfair or deceptive practice, or it would have stopped it long ago.
But more to the point, the most recent definition of an “unfair and deceptive” practice allows for such shenanigans:
§399.84 Price advertising and opt-out provisions.
a) The Department considers any advertising or solicitation … for passenger air transportation, a tour … or tour component (e.g., a hotel stay) that must be purchased with air transportation that states a price for such air transportation, tour, or tour component to be an unfair and deceptive practice in violation of 49 U.S.C. 41712, unless the price stated is the entire price to be paid by the customer to the carrier, or agent, for such air transportation, tour, or tour component. Although charges … may be stated separately or through links or “pop-ups” on websites that display the total price, such charges may not be false or misleading, may not be displayed prominently, may not be presented in the same or larger size as the total price, and must provide cost information on a per passenger basis that accurately reflects the cost of the item covered by the charge.
But the DOT does not consider seat reservation to be part of the ticket, so American and United can get on down with their bad selves, making passengers like McMurtrey think they don’t have a seat.
Again, we have a situation where the airlines are both right and wrong. They’re following federal regulations, but at the same time deceiving their customers.