There you are, your knees to your chin, wedged into the middle seat, a stranger’s elbow in your face, right behind the roaring engine or right in front of the unfragrant, noisy lavatory. Is this your airline seat fate?
No, I say! Someone might have to sit in that seat, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be you.
Let us start with your reservation, when you are usually given a chance to choose your seat on the plane. Unless you have high-mileage status with the airline, you’re probably not going to be able to choose an exit row or bulkhead seat. These seats will be blocked, although perhaps not permanently
You can, at least, try to get a seat toward the front, on the aisle or next to a window, as you prefer. And if you’re not sure what the best seats are, you can look at SeatGuru.com , an extremely useful website where the seats on each of the aircraft operated by the major airlines are evaluated.
Are you flying, for example, on a Continental 767-400? SeatGuru reports that seat 16L has extra leg room, but there’s no window next to the "window seat." Also, because there’s room for a bassinet, the airline often puts passengers with babies there. These are good things to know as you click on your preferred seat on an airline reservation site, or choose one over the phone with an agent.
So, you’ve chosen a seat and now you’re done, right? Wrong! Even if you think you scored the best seat you can get, you’re not finished. You have to keep an eye on that seat assignment.
If you have reserved on the Web with an airline site or online agency, go back online and check your seat before departure. Sometimes you’ll find it’s been canceled, so that you have no seat assignment, or it’s been changed to another seat. This can happen because an agent reassigned your seat to someone who begged, wheedled or pulled some high-mileage rank, or because the aircraft type has been changed. Or for no discernible reason.
A friend of mine checked and rechecked his seat assignment for a flight to Europe, showed up at the airport, picked up his boarding pass and only realized as he boarded the plane that the airline had changed his primo aisle seat to a much worse one in the middle of the row at the back of the plane. Sitting in the seat he had originally chosen was half of a couple who had no doubt demanded a reassignment at the last minute. He was really steamed, and I don’t blame him.
So keep an eye on that seat assignment in the weeks before departure. Even if your seat hasn’t been changed, go ahead and look around. Maybe a better seat has opened up and you can switch to that one. And if you can print your boarding pass online the day before departure, check again for a better seat at that point.
And don’t give up until you’re boarding. Ask the airline agent when you check your bags or when you arrive at the gate whether you can switch to a better seat. The best seats in coach – exit rows and bulkhead seats – can open up at the very last minute, as high-mileage "elite" fliers get upgrades into first class. (Keep in mind that children under the age of 15 and people with serious physical disabilities can’t fly in exit rows.)
How does this help you with Southwest Airlines, where seats are not assigned in advance? My brother, a frequent Southwest flier, advises printing your boarding pass just as soon as you can within the 24-hour limit set by Southwest. He’s seen the A passes, which put you in the first third of passengers allowed to board and choose seats, get taken within 10 minutes. He also sent a link to this enormous FAQ on FlyerTalk’s forums, if you have more questions about Southwest seating.
As for Northwest Airlines, which is now charging for those marginally better coach seats, it’s up to you whether you want to pay. (I don’t see this initiative being picked up by other airlines, so I’m hoping Northwest will drop it eventually.)
Yet, even after all this effort, you could end up in a lousy seat. A late reservation on a full plane, or an airline that won’t let you pick a seat until just before departure, may leave you with few options. In that case you just have to wedge yourself in and figure you did the best you could.
Somebody had to sit there, but maybe next time it won’t have to be you.