More airline deception — seating charts that don’t tell the truth

by Charlie Leocha on July 25, 2013

Airlines are not providing coach passengers the available seating inventory when they book flights. Why? Some say to drive passengers to purchase a more expensive seat. Others say it is to hold seats back for elite frequent fliers. In any case, it is deceptive and sleazy.

This is not the first time that the airlines have been caught and that these dishonest practices have made it into the press. However, the airline industry doesn’t care. They have a virtual monopoly and the enforcement division of the Department of Transportation (DOT) doesn’t have control over seat pricing and other non-airfare pricing.

In early 2012, Bill McGee first drew national attention to this airline practice of withholding seats. He noted in his article,

Some industry experts have connected the dots. “They’re trying to get people to buy premium seats,” says George Hobica, USATODAY.com’s Fly Guy columnist and the founder of Airfarewatchdog.com. “They want to increase revenue. And we’re getting more complaints about it.” He notes that it “really annoys” passengers who want to sit together, particularly when traveling with small children.

Of course, securing a good seat isn’t an issue if you’re in first class or you’re an elite member of a frequent flyer program. But what about the rest of us? As I’ve pointed out repeatedly in recent columns, we’re faced with record-high load factors, the highest for the U.S. airline industry since World War II. But even with the average percentage of occupied seats for domestic flights at 82.7 percent, it’s still an average — some flights will be fuller but others will not, particularly weeks in advance. Yet searching for seats keeps getting harder and harder.

In other words, a father when searching for a seat together with his child, even when purchasing a month or more in advance, can see only single middle seats available for reservation. In order to sit with his child, he feels obligated to purchase a paid seat for between $35 and $69 extra in order to be guaranteed a seat with his child.

In fact, there are far more unassigned seats that have been held back for elite fliers or only to make coach passengers believe that all free seats are filled. This is basically unfair and deceptive.

In a follow-up article McGee quoted a travel attorney who claimed the same.

“It’s a shell game with the seats,” says Al Anolik, a veteran travel attorney and expert on aviation law. “When they tell me seats are not available and they are available, they are lying.” Anolik claims the key is full disclosure, and passengers should be given their options: “I can appreciate yield management, but there is a line that is drawn by misrepresenting [available] seats. In this case, silence is the same as deceit.”

For those who know the game, there is a way around this charade perpetrated by the airlines, according to Peter Greenberg, a TV and Web travel reporter.

It turns out the airlines are actually holding back up to 40 percent of available seats when you book online. Luckily, it’s easier to get around this than you might expect. Your biggest mistake is in depending entirely on the Internet to book your travel and find your seat. The Internet works linearly, but if you have a conversation with an airline representative you have a much better chance at a good place to sit. For the best outcome, call at an off-peak time, speak with a supervisor and don’t take a demanding tone. Instead, emphasize your loyalty to that airline.

Since discussions with DOT have resulted in no action and a statement that they do not have jurisdiction, perhaps this is a portion of the aviation industry that has not been carved out by Congress for federal pre-emption. Perhaps parties can sue in state court and bring a class-action suit against the airlines for misleading and deceptive practices?

It seems that when the federal agencies that have enforcement authority over airlines cannot act, local authorities should be able to take action. In any case, it is one more case of airlines lying to the public that has come out in the past few weeks. There should be some recourse for consumers.

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  • sirwired

    “However, the airline industry doesn’t care. They have a virtual monopoly and the enforcement division of the Department of Transportation (DOT) doesn’t have control over seat pricing and other non-airfare pricing.”

    The airline industry has a “virtual monopoly” over itself? What does that mean?

    In any case, I don’t see how this is a case that could be litigated by state courts where federal courts have no power; the pricing and sale of interstate transportation is a classic subject for federal regulation.

  • Charles Smith

    Greenburg’s idea of calling may have some merit. BUT, When you call you are usually assessed a $20 fee by most airlines for talking to a live person. They may even try to assess it per ticket. So if you can get a premium seat next to a middle for $19 more, it makes sense to just purchase the premium seat.

    Or you can do what we have always done. Book the bad seats and go online later and see if better seats open up. They usually do and the better seats can then be claimed.

    And a question on seat selection. If you book a premium seat, will the airline keep your seat assignment or do they move you after ticketing? It seems that if you are paying for a premium seat, you should be guaranteed a premium seat.

  • DCTA

    Ahem … I’ve been telling clients about this for over 10 years! Seats have been blocked or hidden for at least that long and available to those with high status or paying higher fares. This is not exactly “new”.

  • BobChi

    Are you saying that they are saying seats are not available at all, or that they are only available for an extra fee? The airlines I deal with most often have seating charts that show which seats are unavailable, which ones are available at a premium, and which ones are available with no extra fee. I make my choice. I only expect to be able to book seats that are available for a fee if I’m willing to pay the fee.

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