Preferred airline seats a hoax? Debunking a mainstream media article

The great thing about BoardingArea bloggers, if I can toot our respective horns, is that we’re true road warriors with intricate knowledge of the airline, hotel and travel industry. We post our hearts out with often highly specific details about our travel experiences all in the desire to impart wisdom to other travelers. Then there’s the mainstream media.

I’m going to nitpick on another Peter Greenberg article posted this week where he has a discussion with Wall Street Journal travel editor Scott McCartney about preferential seats on airlines. As with the previous Greenberg article, I agree with some points and disagree with others.

First up, Peter claims middle seats shouldn’t be considered preferred:

a close up of a textOkay, yes, middle seats are generally not preferential, but in United Airlines’ Economy Plus, middle seats still offer greater seat pitch than the back of the cabin. A couple booking a window and middle together in “E+†would have to agree they’re getting preferred seats in this case. Also, if only middle seats are left, those up front offer you to disembark quicker when you arrive.

Next, Scott says he sees some seat maps where an unusual pair of seats are roped off:

a white background with black textI might agree with him, but here’s my experience. On United, if you look at many flights ridiculously far out in the future where probably no one has a booking yet, they “rope off†a couple of pairs of seats, often the D & E ones. On many aircraft, those particular rows have armrests on the aisles that extend fully upward to allow a wheelchair passenger to easily slide in. Now if those are actually roped off as preferred for purchase, that’s an obvious no-no. Without knowing what he was looking at specifically, I’ll just give my partial disagreement here.

Here, I’ll sort-of agree with Peter:

a close up of textAmerican’s new Preferred Seating program has gotten some criticism as huge swaths of seats are now considered preferred, often stretching far back into the cabin. Peter’s example of 21 out of 27 seats open being preferred means American designated the windows and aisles as preferred with six “regular†seats (middles, I’m sure) open for free. Ah ha! Did I contradict myself about the middle seats? I don’t think so in American’s case since they’re focusing on windows and aisles as premium. A $4 seat is one of those windows or aisles, Peter, probably further back.

Scott then continues that paying a preferred seat fee is outrageous:

a close up of black textWhat you get when you buy an airline ticket is a confirmation of travel from Point A to Point B. Every airline’s contract of carriage explicitly states, “seat assignments are not guaranteed.†Do people really read the CoC? Probably the same amount of people who actually read the “I’ve read and fully accept the terms and conditions†of any online agreement, but I digress. Also, unbundling has been around now in the airline industry for a while, so Scott shouldn’t be so shocked, and he noted earlier that, “You buy your ticket, but that doesn’t guarantee you a specific seat.”

Those points aside, I’d encourage you to read the full article. They do hit correctly on some hot topics, including:

  • How United is screwing their low-level elites out of E+ seats until time of check-in.
  • Being pressured into paying for a preferred seat out of worry of being bumped off the flight.
  • The delay-inducing effect of more people trying to carryon their bags by avoiding the checked bag fee.
  • Efficiencies gained by charge-happy carrier like Spirit Airlines.

Anyway, I have a love-hate relationship when I see articles like this. I tend to nitpick, but I also believe in putting more truth out there.


  1. The other advantage of middle-seat preferred is the small extra chance it adds for an empty middle sear between the “real” preferred seats. Minor in these days of packed planes, but sometimes helpful.

  2. Building on what Scott says about paying for a premium seat, I think he doesn’t go far enough. If I pay for a ticket, I should be able to take any seat I want, it’s not fair that some people can choose seats in business and first class while others can’t.

  3. Reading the article, as well as the previous one you commented on, it’s (obviously) pretty clear the perspective that Greenberg is coming from and ths side from which he’s considering the topic. Of course, there are two of more sides to every story, and from the elite perspective he obviously misses quite a bit.

    On one hand, he apparently “needs to pay for what used to be free” in terms of preselecting seats, and claims that this is due to airline trying to leverage people into paying. The truth of the matter, though, is that planes are just full these days. While these fees are certainly a revenue source, some airlines (Delta is my carrier, so I’m most in the loop there) have not been charging for preferred seating (just rolling it out now at Delta) but have been reserving it for elites. They even expanded preferred seating recently (and are just now moving to monetize it).

    With full planes, preferred seating is a substantial perk, and for low-level elites one of the few they get. A middle seat at the front of the plane is far preferable to one back in the bowels, crammed up against a restroom. When planes are full, demand for seats is high, and accessing preferred seating is a significant bonus.

    The perspective of someone speaking to the occasional flyer with perspective of what being an occasional flyer has been like over years and decades is decidedly different from the perspective of someone comparing the realities of elite and non-elite travel today.

    • Thanks for your comments, Matt, and I agree. The general flyer does now have to pay for seats they would have gotten free years ago and that’s Peter’s angle, but he knows how the industry has changed and shouldn’t be so “shocked.” He gives acceptable “mass media” advice, but I wish at times he & Scott would go more into detail, for example, of exactly what an airline’s contract of carriage really states. Seat assignments have never been guaranteed, only transportation from point A to point B.

  4. Ha! The various articles always seem to have a single-issue focus, but miss the larger picture. That’s the nature of Travel ‘Journalism’ in 2011. Yes, PG is one of the worst offenders; his articles and broadcast clips are serious junk and we know that he knows better. His stuff is junk and serious travelers know to find better sources. PG’s stuff sells, I guess, but only to folks who travel once in a decade. I think it not unfair to call PG an opportunist. Nuff said

  5. People with more travel experience know that for many years, when you purchase a train ticket in Europe for a long distance train, you are often required to purchase a seat reservation for another 5 or 10 Euros. Some trains don’t require a seat reservation and allow it as optional.

    So what we now think of as unusual in the air, may not be so.

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