When a good airline seat goes bad

by Janice Hough on October 25, 2011

As upgrades get more and more difficult to obtain, many savvy travelers are turning their attention to flights where they can reserve good seats in coach.

For elite members, this often means exit rows. Now, there is one disadvantage for such seats, in that the dividers don’t move on the off-chance that the middle seat is empty. And when there are two exit rows together, the first row doesn’t recline. But the rows do have more legroom. Usually.

A 1k traveler today from San Francisco to Dulles today on United discovered that “usually” may be small comfort. (Personally, the only plane I book regularly with lousy exit row seats is the smallest Canadian Regional Jet that United flies, where row 8 has minimum if any extra room.)

But in this case he was traveling with his wife, which meant little chance for an upgrade, so we carefully booked seats in row 21, the second exit row — reclining seats, lots of extra legroom

When he got to the airport, the gate agent told him there had been an equipment change to a “new configuration.” And gave him boarding passes in row 16. Since this client is a VERY frequent flier, and about 6’5″, he questioned the seats, and was told, they were “good seats” and reclined.

Neither turned out to be true. As I could see in camera-phone photos he sent me, the seats, while technically still exit rows, were not even considered “economy plus,” (only the second exit row had that designation) and did not have as much legroom as a standard economy plus seat, and didn’t recline. This made the cross-country flight, especially since the woman in front of him reclined the entire way, a particularly painful experience.

As far as travel nightmares go, this could have been worse. But it was still a pretty bad day. On top of being uncomfortable, there wasn’t even room for my client to use his laptop. (I’m 5’3″ and I hate feeling wedged in myself.)

Another issue with exit rows is that some airlines will swap aircraft and a certain row may go from being an exit row to not being an exit row. I’ve had clients report this problem, especially with Airbus equipment. On a United Airbus in fact, row 12 may go from being an exit row to being behind the exits, again with the client not even getting an “economy plus” seat.

After the experience mentioned above, the client fired off an angry email to United consumer relations — no word yet — as there was nothing he could do after he got on the plane.

Before boarding, however, travelers may have some options. First, when a premium or even a good regular seat is changed, ask specifically about the configuration. Ask even when there’s an aircraft change and the seat number stays the same. I’ve had clients have window seats changed into middle seats when equipment shifted from a narrow-body to a wide-body plane.

This doesn’t work when a gate agent gives the wrong information. Anyone with computer access can check “Seatguru.com” or call their travel agent to double check.

Second, when a seat is changed and it’s obvious it’s a downgrade, ask politely but firmly for the airline to try to fix it. No matter what gate agents say, seats do become available 30 minutes prior to departure when other travelers miss the check-in deadline. The airline usually tries to accommodate elite passengers first, or those with no seat assignments, but the agent has discretion.

Third, if all else fails and despite either being an elite flier or having paid for a premium seat, you still end up in a lousy seat, complain reasonably to consumer relations. This sort of thing won’t result in a free ticket, unless there’s a really bad problem, like ending up in a middle seat with crying babies on both sides. However, most carriers will offer at least a token compensation, not to mention a refund of seat fees.

At least writing is cathartic. Though, if following my last piece of advice, you feel compelled to use language that would get bleeped from an airline movie, save the draft and edit it before sending in the morning.

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  • Anonymous

    I’m 6’3″ with legs so long I cannot purchase pants that fit in a retail store, and I’ve never, not once, had a problem with legroom in an airline seat and I’ve never had my knees jammed in the back of the seat in front of me.

    Sure, I appreciate extra legroom when I can get it; so does anyone.  But I find much (if not all) of the bellyaching over seat pitch (or economy class in general) to be overblown.  (I do admit that using a laptop for five + hours might be a challenge though…)  And I have ZERO sympathy for all those frequent flyers that whine about not getting the upgrade they claim to desperately need and are sure they deserve.  If you absolutely require an upgrade, buy one.  Otherwise, look at it as a gift from the airline when you receive it.  I certainly wouldn’t let upgrade availability or seat configuration dictate my schedule or the flight I took.

  • Frank

    Another issue with exit rows is that some airlines will swap aircraft and a certain row may go from being an exit row to not being an exit row. I’ve had clients report this problem, especially with Airbus equipment. On a United Airbus in fact, row 12 may go from being an exit row to being behind the exits, again with the client not even getting an “economy plus” seat.
    ============================================================

    I tell passengers time and time again, when they arrive to their “Exit Row” seats and see that they dont have all the legroom they thought they were getting, I ASK, what did you ASK FOR?  I always hear, EXIT ROW SEATS.  Well, you got em’.  I would of asked for seats with EXTRA LEGROOM.

  • Neal1027

    “This doesn’t work when a gate agent gives the wrong information. Anyone with computer access can check “Seatguru.com” or call their travel agent to double check.” –Like my travel agent is going to answer on the first call?  And when she does answer, she’s going to have nothing better to do than double check Seat Guru for me?  

  • janice

    Neal, you need a better travel agent. 

  • AirlineEmployee

    Yeah, just pound out a complaint e-mail……United gives away the store – NOW — Later, not likely…….
    I don’t think Continental will be anywhere near as generous.

  • Phil

    I am 5’10″ and I frequently have trouble with leg room in economy class but only when the person in front of me reclines forcing the seat back into my knees.  I simply will not impose that on the person behind me and I NEVER recline my seat.  As far as I am concerned the only really fair way to solve the problem is to remove the recline capability in economy and let everyone have the same amount of leg room throughout the flight.

  • Phil

    I am 5’10″ and I frequently have trouble with leg room in economy class but only when the person in front of me reclines forcing the seat back into my knees.  I simply will not impose that on the person behind me and I NEVER recline my seat.  As far as I am concerned the only really fair way to solve the problem is to remove the recline capability in economy and let everyone have the same amount of leg room throughout the flight.

  • Chris in NC

    Janice, 

    The absolute worst exit row seat is 12A, 12G on US Airways 767!

  • Ton

    there is a new design that allows the seat to recline but does so by sliding forward in a hard shell, the only problem is that with the hard shell there is the need for an airbag which is $$$ and we all know how airlines are when it comes to spending.

    you are right it is a matter of people respecting eachother and if everyone does that the problem is 90% solved.

    in the case above, yes a 6.5 person in economy is never a good combination so spend on beter if you can, what i don’t understand is the laptop, apart from the why work on a private trip thing, i don’t get why people seem to think that their laptop use is more important than someone else’s comfort (and i say that having spend 30 mins in a commute in front of someone with bags of stinking food and talking in her cellphone so loud that she did not need it)

  • Scott

    Your account has very few facts, and the ones that are there do not make a lot of sense.  What type of aircraft did this passenger allegedly get switched to?  A “Row 16″ exit row with no legroom, no recline, no EP, and another row reclining in front of him?  I’m not buying that set of “facts”.

    Also, your allegations about United Airbuses are no longer correct.  This was once true.  United renumbered rows on ALL narrow-body aircraft quite some time ago so that aircraft swaps do not cause changes for bulkhead, exit row seats and economy plus seats.  I would have expected you to be aware of this.

  • Janice

    Scott, thanks for update on Airbus’s, I’ve had clients complain about the planes this year but don’t remember the dates. And on this one the client sent PICTURES of the seat and overhead.  (It really wasn’t an econ plus seat though it was an exit row.) I believe it still was a 757.  Will double check. And the gentleman in question used to work for the airlines so he’s not the blowing smoke type.   (Usually the biggest complaint I get though is the change from old 777s to new and vice versa, when windows become middles, etc. 

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