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Want Premium Airline Seats on Your Flight? Read the Fine Print

March 23, 2010 | Posted in: Airline News,Ask Rick,Passengers,United

premium airline seats flight

I was thinking about the importance of “reading the fine print” as I read a sad story in the always-lively Consumerist.

It seems a fellow and his wife were going to travel to Japan on United, and to be sure they’d be extra-comfortable, he sprang for premium seating – in this case, Economy Plus – for an extra $400. He managed to reserve two bulkhead seats right next to each other, far in advance, and thought all was well.

It wasn’t, and what he wound up with was two middle-seats, apart from each other (it sounds as if they were still Economy Plus seating, but it’s not clear – in any event, his biggest beef, it seems, is he didn’t get the side-by-side bulkhead seats).

So I went to the United website and – guess what I found?  Keep reading…

Yes, there it was – the fine print (actually, it was pretty easy to find). It read, in part:

  • Economy Plus purchase reserves a seat within the Economy Plus seating area. Specific seat assignments are not guaranteed.
  • Economy Plus purchase is processed based on seat availability at time of purchase.
  • This offer is subject to change without notice.

Does that make it all better? Of course not. Should the airline have done something to make up for this? I would. The situation stinks, but unfortunately, you can’t say the airline didn’t warn you.

And this sort of thing could happen I think, no matter what airline you fly, so always check out the carrier’s “Contract of Carriage” or “terms and conditions” or look under “details” before you spring for that perk, so you’ll know exactly what you’ll be getting – or maybe not be getting.

As Mel Brooks once said, sometimes you just have to ”Hope for the best. Expect the worst.”

15 Responses to “Want Premium Airline Seats on Your Flight? Read the Fine Print”

  1. Rainier Wolfcastle says:

    Unless he made the reservation and did not actually pay for it until later, it seems to me that the two seats that he picked were available “at the time of purchase”. So how does United justify not giving him the seats that it told him were available at the time that he purchased them? By invoking the “subject to change without notice” clause?

    I was a United frequent flyer for business and pleasure for over 20 years. But I can’t stand them now, primarily because of crap exactly like this.

  2. Rick Seaney says:


    I suppose that, and the fact that they state that specific seat assignments are “not guaranteed”.

    Thanks for writing,

  3. Roger says:

    I’ve been waiting for a related post so I could ask for some advice on this topic.

    I travel a fair amount in my work, frequently to Hawaii from the east coast, so I’m quite fond of using my miles to upgrade. As a premier executive on United, I usually have no trouble getting an upgrade, and I am happy with the travel experience on United.

    Or at least I was.

    Now, as I’m sure you are well aware, United has this “Co-Pay” system. I had to pay $50 for an upgrade from Baltimore to Denver, and on my next trip to Hawaii, I will be expected to pay $400, in addition to the miles. Clearly, this is unacceptable.

    So now, I wish to change loyalties to an Airline that will actually reward me for it. The problem is, which airline? Does United’s new policy mean that all the airlines will soon adopt this co-pay system? I don’t want to start all over at a new airline and have the same thing happen.

    Any advice on which loyalty program to switch to?


  4. Ken says:

    As much as I, too, distrust and dislike United, something smells fishy here. The Consumerist is always “lively” as you say, but also seems to frequently present one side of the story.

    I had a similar incident with United with equipment/schedule changes about a year ago, and over the course of SIX changes in a couple of months, United agents were always able to re-assign us side-by E+ seats, even though I was E+ annual and my wife was on a separate award ticket with even a different reservation number. (E+ annual can have a traveling companion sit in E+ also.)

    Nonetheless, as the passenger said in his quote on Consumerist — next time just book with ANA or most any international carrier.

  5. Rick Seaney says:


    I suppose this could have been a freak situation – a one in a million snafu – and I certainly hope so.


  6. Rick Seaney says:


    Let me research this a bit, see if I come up with any advice for you. It sounds like you do travel quite a bit, so I was wondering if you would be able to split your loyalty and still retain elite status?

    If I come up with anything, I’ll let you know.


  7. Shirley says:

    Continental has had that policy about upgrading and having to pay to upgrade outside of 48 (i.e., Hawaii) for years. That’s why I flew United and got upgraded 6 years ago. Guess that’s now out, too.

  8. Roger says:


    I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I’ll have to give up my elite status and start over if I switch airlines, I don’t plan to split my loyalty. It hurts, but so do my only remaining options: fly coach on long duration flights or pay hundreds of dollars in “co-pay”.

    Also, my wife is just starting on a career as a tour director, so I need to get her setup in a loyalty program. It definitely won’t be Mileage Plus.

    I just hope United is quite pleased with themselves over this scheme.

    - Roger

  9. Judith Pribaz says:

    CondeNast April 2010 editon has a very informative article comparing all airlines.

  10. Rick Seaney says:


    Thanks for the tip. But I do want to caution readers that prices and availability of such perks can and do change without notice so check with your airline, too.

    Appreciate you writing in.

  11. Bucky says:

    This isn’t unique to United. I’ve had experiences with American (and I’m sure it’s the same with other carriers), where equipment changes result in the computer reassigning seats seemingly at random. From their conditions of carriage, it’s apparent that airlines run a commodity business…get passengers from point A to point B. If you visit the frequent flyer boards (such as flyertalk.com), you’ll see countless discussions of people who have had their seat assignments changed for a variety of reasons and the common response is that there are no guaranteed seats and you paid for “x” class of service and got a seat in “x” class. However, there are always lessons learned:

    1) If booking early (months in advance), periodically check your reservation and seat assignments. Airlines will change schedules every few months and if your flights are affected, they won’t necessarily tell you, especially if it’s a change in equipment.

    2) If you are assigned a “bad” seat and can’t find a better seat prior to traveling, check seat assignments starting at 100 hours before departure. Premium elite passengers are often upgraded anytime from 24 to 100 hours prior to departure. Their upgrades often clear preferred economy seats.

    3) The gate agent is your best friend if you still have undesirable seats at the 24 hour mark. Some seats are held back for assignment by gate agents and hours before the flight, they are the only ones who can make/change seat assignments. Be nice to the gate agent and you increase your chances of getting a better seat.

    (For Roger–if you’re interested in switching airline loyalty, some airlines will match status or offer a challenge to earn status more quickly than starting from scratch. Call the airline and ask about status matching.)

  12. Rick Seaney says:


    Couldn’t have said it better myself. Thanks for the excellent advice – and Roger, I hope you’re reading this, too.


  13. Roger says:

    That’s a good tip, Bucky. Thanks.

  14. Stuart says:

    My wife and I are having some issues with loyalty to United. Unfortunately, due to some health issues that cut back travel, we have lost our Elite status after many, many years. To further the problem, United no longer flies to destinations we use frequently, such as Ft. Lauderdale, FL, Ft. Myers, RL, or West Palm Beach, FL. So we have been flying more on American; however, we don’t particularly care for the MD-80′s they fly. Ironically, on a trip to Phoenix recently, we found ourselves in United’s Economy Plus without paying for it because of equipment changes. What to do? What to do?

  15. Rick Seaney says:


    When they change routes on you, there’s not much you can do. When they put you in Economy Plus without charging you – just enjoy it!


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