A little over a year ago I wrote about how American Airlines was cleverly hiding available seats. At the time I found the entire practice incredibly shady. See, American offers complimentary seat assignments on all Main Cabin tickets. However, when you’d go to the seat selection page there were no “free” seats available. Instead, you either had to accept a seat assignment at check-in or pay extra for an assigned seat. Even worse, if you checked sites like Expert Flyer or the airlines own seat maps, you’d quickly realize seats were still readily available. Unfortunately those seats were reserved for priority customers only.
Since that original post I hadn’t thought much about seat assignments on American. I book nearly all of my flights directly from American’s website and as an AAdvantage elite member I never had any issues selecting a seat. Then, just two days ago, I rediscovered this shady practice when trying to select seats on an upcoming flight to London.
Very Few Seats Available
I decided to book my upcoming trip to Europe through the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel portal. I used a few UR points to pay for the trip to hopefully trigger an American Airlines Special Fare purchase. I wanted to buy a “Special Fare” so that I’d earn EQD and EQM based on the mileage flown rather than the price paid. When making the booking I neglected to add my AAdvantage number to the reservation. This was a simple fix once ticketed, but while American processed the ticket I tried to select my seats which is when I was reminded of this deceptive practice.
When I first logged into my reservation (without my AAdvantage number entered) I discovered the following seat map.
This was the front half of the Main Cabin and below is the back half.
As you can see, there were a few seat available in the back half of the aircraft, but if you wanted to sit anywhere in the middle of the aircraft you’d have to pay extra or accept a middle seat. While 18H was available, I definitely wouldn’t want to sit next to the restrooms on an 8 hour transatlantic flight.
Selecting Seats As An Aadvantage Elite
After my American issued my ticket I could then log-in and add my AAdvantage number to the reservation. After adding my AAdvantage number to the reservation the seat map looked much more appealing.
As an AAdvantage Executive Platinum (Platinum and above) I can select Main Cabin Extra (MCE) and “Premium” paid seats for free upon booking. For this flight alone I saved $129! AAdvantage Gold elites have complimentary access to these seats at check-in.
As you can see from the above seat maps, the 787 used on my flight to London is nearly wide open. A group of passengers shouldn’t have any issues getting sets together if booking this flight today. However, as the cabin fills up, I suspect only the single middle seats or paid seats will remain available. This is where I see a potential issue.
Up-Charging Customers For Seat Assignments
As passengers select the free seats from the rear cabin only paid seats will show available on seat maps. I suspect a family traveling together will end up paying for paid seats if they didn’t know any better. A novice traveler will look at a seat map and think “well, do sit in middle seat or pay for an window/aisle seat.” In the end, you could spend hundreds of dollars extra for a seat assignment even though there are standard economy seats available.
That’s the real issue here. Those seats with the little stars on them aren’t anything special. They are standard economy seats like you’d find anywhere else on the aircraft. However, American designates these seats as Priority Seats which makes them unavailable to non-elite passengers.
How To Bypass Paying More For Seats
Luckily for you, there are ways to avoid paying for seat assignments if you know what you’re doing. The first thing I’d recommend doing if you can’t find complimentary seats on your flight is to view the seat map on American’s website prior to booking.
When you search for flights on American’s website you’ll find “Details” and “Seats” buttons to the left of the prices. After clicking the “Seats” button you’ll find the entire seat map. You essentially see what I can see as and AAdvantage Elite member when selecting seats. Here you can see if those occupied aisle seats are actually filled or if American is playing tricks on you.
If you end up seeing that there are in fact open seats I’d recommend calling the airline to try to politely ask for access to these seats. You’d be surprised what American Airlines phone agents are willing to do if you ask politely.
If that fails I’d recommend finding a friend with AAdvantage Elite status to place the call on your behalf. Sometimes, if you call your AAdvantage Elite desk with your friends reservation number and name the American agents are often willing to give them seat assignments even if the two of you aren’t traveling together. In some instances they may even be able to put you in MCE seats on international flight at no extra cost. Keep in mind that your mileage may vary when using this method. Also, if you don’t get the answer you want the first time, it’s always worth hanging up and calling again.
American Airlines is getting really really tricky in the ways they get customers to pay more for things. I personally find this seat assignment trick somewhat genius. To the inexperienced traveler it may seem like the only available seats are middle seats. To avoid sitting in an middle seat for 8 hours I bet more than a few people pay for a MCE seat purely for a window/aisle seat assignment rather than wanting the extra legroom. In the end, American makes a few extra hundred dollars and the passenger is none the wiser. However, I bet the passengers ends up very confused when they find a half-empty plane when boarding is complete.
Also, it’s probably that American isn’t the airline doing this. So, next time you book a flight, make sure think twice and possibly call the airline before paying more for a seat assignment that should be complimentary.