On the Spot: Enjoy your new seat (Robert Neubecker / For The…)
Question: In February, I booked two tickets to Las Vegas on JetBlue. I selected seats next to each other. Earlier this month, I checked in soon after the "check-in window" opened and found that on both legs of my trip, JetBlue had assigned seats in the same row but on opposite sides of the plane. JetBlue offered to upgrade me to seats with more legroom for $10 each, but they were just seats next to each other for $10 more each. I know it's not a lot of money, but is JetBlue crooked?
--Chris Feik, Goleta, Calif.
Answer: You may not like what JetBlue did, but it has the right to do so, according to its contract of carriage, which says, "Seat assignments are not guaranteed and are subject to change without notice." It's what you agreed to when you bought your ticket, even if you didn't know it.
As a gesture of goodwill, JetBlue refunded the fees and gave Feik and his travel companion $25 vouchers for future travel on the airline.
We are hearing more complaints about seats assigned and then unassigned, so I asked an expert why this happens.
"It is certainly not some nefarious plot to deprive people of their seats," said Jami Counter, senior director for SeatGuru.com, which is, among other things, a comprehensive airline seating resource. I put aside the conspiracy theories and let Counter explain what happens when dissimilar computer systems try to talk to one another.
For example, a third-party website might be trying to communicate with a carrier about seats. If one or the other system isn't what Counter calls "fully robust," it may not understand which seats are actually available, and it may let the customer choose something that isn't in the free-seat pool.
A seat change might also be, Counter said, an "operational necessity," which can happen if some passengers (those with small children, say) need to sit together.
Or it could be, as Counter recently experienced, a change in equipment. For a flight during the Fourth of July weekend, he had carefully chosen his seats on what he thought was going to be a 747. It turned out that it was an MD 88, and he ended up in what he said were tight and uncomfortable quarters.
Although the unexpected can trip you up, Counter suggested booking directly on the airline's site rather than with a third party if you're concerned about incompatible systems. If you have a less desirable seat, he suggested checking back at the 96-, 48- and 24-hour marks to see whether a better one has opened up. The 24-hour mark can be especially fertile, he said, because that's "when elite members get upgraded, and they were probably in a good seat to begin with."
Aircraft differ so you can't always make broad-based assumptions about where the good seats are. But here's one thing that holds fairly true, Counter said: A seat in the last row near the lavatories isn't going to be a little piece of heaven. The seats don't recline or recline only slightly, and you'll have a constant parade of people in the aisle. No matter how good your posture or how social you are, that gets old after a while. But we're savvier today, and you don't have to take a bad seat sitting down, especially if you're willing to pay for it.
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