Robert Silk
Robert Silk

When does a lack of transparency translate into a lack of credibility?

This question is admittedly a bit esoteric. But I've found myself pondering it over the past few weeks, on the specific issue of paid airline seat selections, after an experience I had during the holidays on American.

The cause of this musing was a flight I took from Miami to San Diego on the morning of Christmas Eve. Checking in online the afternoon before, I was disappointed to see that I had been assigned a middle seat near the back of the plane. Even more disappointing was that there were no free alternatives for an aisle or window. Moving to an available seat that wasn't in the middle was going to cost me at least $50, the interactive seat-selection chart told me, so I chose to stick with my middle seat.

The following morning I went through the routine again when I checked in at the airport kiosk to pay my checked-bag fee. Like the previous day, the seat chart told me that all the somewhat better, though still free (i.e., no extra cost) seats in the back half of the plane were unavailable. Obtaining a window or aisle seat for the five-and-a-half-hour flight would be costly. I decided again to save the money. But I hadn't given up hope.

I headed next to the check-in counter to have TSA Precheck added to my ticket. But while there, I figured it would be worth a try to ask the agent if I could move to an aisle seat. She gave her computer a brief look and without hesitation told me yes. Then she printed me a new ticket, this one for an aisle seat, at no extra cost.

I proceeded to the gate and onto the plane in the type of cheery mood any flyer would be in when he has learned that the next several hours of his life are going to be more comfortable than expected.

A shifting seat chart

But after the loading process was complete, I realized there were better options still. Contrary to what that seat chart had led me to believe the day before -- and also just an hour before -- this flight wasn't crowded. Indeed, there were lots of empty seats. Best of all, one row up from me and across the aisle there was a row of three seats that remained free after boarding had been completed. I gathered my items and sat down in the vacant row for what now had become an especially comfortable trip to Southern California.

Still, I'm a quizzical reporter type, and one who writes about airlines to boot, so nagging questions started rumbling in my head. Why had the automated American system been telling me that so many seats were full? What methods do airline seat-chart platforms use to generate availability and upgrade displays? And most importantly, was my assignment to one of the worst seats on the plane, coupled with the seat chart showing so many other seats as unavailable, deliberately misleading?

Before addressing those issues, I should note that American never said all those better seats on that Boeing 737 were full. The term that it and fellow carriers including United, Delta and Alaska use on their seat-chart displays is "unavailable." It's more vague than "full," if you are parsing words, but hardly noticeable to the average traveler.

The difference, though, is key. An airline can make a seat unavailable simply by temporarily withholding it from the sales inventory. So when American or any other airline tells a customer that certain seats are "unavailable" while others are available for a cost, there's really no way of knowing if anyone is already assigned to those "unavailable" seats. If the carriers would use the term "full" on the seat charts there would be no ambiguity.

But it could be that ambiguity is what the carriers are looking for. Using the term "unavailable" could enable them to make it look as if a seat is already assigned without actually being untruthful. And if it looks like a flight is going to be crowded, passengers are more likely to buy that ancillary upsell away from the middle seat.

Maybe I'm just being cynical. I can't say for sure that carriers are withholding seats from their digital display inventories or that such a thing happened on my Miami-San Diego flight. American, meanwhile, didn't accept an interview request for this column.

To be sure, passenger manifests are a moving target on every flight. Some travelers book a flight and later change or cancel it. Others don't show up for the flight they have booked. Still others miss connections. But in an age when U.S. travelers are broadly cynical about their airlines, it seems to me that my concern is a fair one.

Each airline plays by its own rules

To learn more about how airline seat-upgrade displays work, I spoke with Jim Davidson, CEO of the airline industry technology company Farelogix, which provides distribution engines for a cross section of North American airlines, including American, Alaska, Delta, United, Air Canada, WestJet and Aeromexico. Davidson explained that each airline plugs its own rules into Farelogix's seat-upgrade platforms, and those rules determine what the seat displays show. The rules can be based on a variety of criteria, such as the load factor on a flight, how far off the flight is, historical demand for the flight and whether the person choosing the seat has loyalty status with the airline.

All those factors go into determining how much a carrier is charging at a particular time for certain seat upgrades.

Davidson added that for customers working their way through an airline's sales platform, a carrier will usually start the process by assigning them a seat in the back of the plane for which they don't plan to charge extra.

"My experience is that just because a seat map shows something is not available doesn't mean that's the case," he said.

To be clear, I don't begrudge an airline its ability to sell good seats at a higher price than middling seats. Indeed, I think it's a positive thing that U.S. airlines employ a wide variety of strategies to determine seat-selection charges.

I also understand that seats on a flight fill up slowly and that a carrier can only use its best analytics to guesstimate what will sell and what won't. So if a carrier is planning to maximize profits through a strategy of commoditizing certain seats, it makes sense to release seats gradually.

On a flight-by-flight basis, that strategy carries risks. Sometimes carriers simply won't find enough people willing to pay for the upgrades, so they'll have to give away some of the better seats to flyers who check in without a seat assignment.

That phenomenon, for example, would explain another recent American flight on which I ended up in Main Cabin Extra even though I had purchased an economy seat and don't have AAdvantage loyalty status.

Still, what flyers should demand from airlines is transparency.

If a carrier says a customer is in a middle seat toward the back, and every other free seat is unavailable, the customer shouldn't have to analyze what "unavailable" means. Seat maps should show which seats have been assigned, which haven't and which haven't been put up for sale yet.

Granted, the maps will change as other ticket holders alter their travel plans or upgrade their seats. But as airline industry analyst Henry Harteveldt astutely told me during a recent discussion, what shoppers are really buying with a paid seat selection is an assurance. Those who don't select a seat early might still end up with an aisle seat toward the front of the aircraft, but those who buy one of those seats know they'll get it.

Consumers should be able to make that buying decision without having to wonder if they are being misled.


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