7:51 PM EST, November 19, 2013
I faced a seat conundrum when booking a recent trip to Seattle on American Airlines.
For the low, low price of free, I could select a middle seat in the back of the plane.
For the not-so-low price of $58.01, I could guarantee a Main Cabin Extra seat, which included extra legroom, a position closer to the front of the plane and, most important to me, an aisle seat.
The other option was a $49.45 Preferred seat, which was "more favorably located within the main cabin," despite a standard amount of legroom.
In essence, after dropping $358 for a round trip to Seattle, my options were a lousy middle seat in the back of the plane — no, thank you — or adding another 15 percent to the cost by securing a more favorable seat.
(Momentary aside: Is it any wonder that flying so often feels like an endless series of confrontations?)
Unwilling to wed myself to a lousy seat or to spend more money, I took the third option: I did nothing. And I became curious about how things would play out. American would need to put me on the plane somewhere. But where?
When I checked in online for my flight a few weeks later, I was again offered the chance to choose a seat. And this time there were no free seats at all, only the premium options. But I still wasn't willing to pay.
Instead I called American's 800 number to ask for advice. A friendly agent explained that the airline reserves a number of seats for its premium seating program, which the airline developed in 2012. Handfuls of other seats are held back for assignment at the airport. What's left for free at the time of booking is largely the back half of the plane, the operator said.
In the growing world of airline fees, premium seating has become a standard. United calls it Economy Plus. Delta calls it Economy Comfort. American calls it Main Cabin Extra.
Ranga Natarajan, senior product manager at Trip Advisor, said tiered seating is likely to continue; he guessed that next up for domestic carriers will be "quiet rows" without children, and that those also will cost extra. Some international airlines already have started the practice.
One way to avoid the fees, Natarajan said, is frequent-flier status. Another is to book early, before the best free seats fill up.
But as my flight to Seattle proved, gambling sometimes pays off.
When I asked the American phone agent what to do, he suggested I just check in online and see what happens. I did and voila: I was given a window seat in Row 12, which would have cost $58.01 moments earlier.
"You take a chance," Natarajan said. "The problem is people flying with family will not take a chance on not having seats together."
That means those people need to book early or get ready to fork over the credit card number yet again.
But if you have flexibility and a strong stomach, there obviously can be a payoff in the gamble. I sacrificed peace of mind and a guaranteed seat, which led to getting that $58 seat for free.
And these days, outsmarting an airline feels priceless.
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