Airline seat secrets: How to avoid paying more for assigned, economy seats

November 26, 2013 (CHICAGO)

Some passengers say they buy a ticket, but there are no economy seats to be found. The only seats they can choose are the ones that cost more, with more leg room. Here's what you should do if this happens to you.

You know the drill. Most flights now are "completely full." There are fewer flights and in some cases, seats have gotten smaller. But now, a new challenge: simply securing your assigned, standard seat at no additional charge.

"They'll take my $600, I will assume there is a seat for me, so I don't know until I get to the airport, so I am wondering the whole time if I have a seat or not," said Carol McCarthy, passenger.

Carol McCarthy is an experienced business traveler. She and airline analysts say this is what's happening-- depending on the popularity of the flight, the seat map may not let you pick a coach seat at the time of purchase. But it will let you upgrade to a "preferred seat" or an "economy plus" seat with extra room. That can cost anywhere from $30-60.

"So it all comes back again to fees and increased fees for customers," said Beth Mosher, AAA.

We watched as American Airlines passenger Angie Tallarita worried.

"When I bought a regular seat it wasn't showing available," said Tallarita.

She didn't have an assigned seat until she checked in.

"It's annoying to buy a ticket and not know. I am going up to the counter to see if I have a seat but I don't really know. (If you will or not?) Pretty much," said Tallarita.

Some airlines like Southwest Airlines never assign seats but customers booking on most major airlines like delta, US Airways, American and United do expect to have a specific seat, when they buy their flight. If you don't, you can keep trying.

Airline experts say if you get to the airport and you still don't have a standard assigned seat, you can probably still get one at the kiosks, or by going to the gate and asking an employee. Experts also say you should never feel pressured into upgrading to one of those seats with more leg room.

"The upgrades are their choice and people need to remember that," said Mosher.

"Don't feel like you have to purchase those. If you purchased an economy seat, the airline will put you in a seat whether it's economy or ones with more legroom when it's time to get on the flight," said Jeanenne Tornatore, Orbitz.

The senior editor at Orbitz and a AAA spokesperson both say if the airline still can't give you your coach seat at the gate, they should upgrade you at no cost.

Chicago's United Airlines and American Airlines wouldn't go on camera, but said gate agents work to provide seats for all ticketed passengers.

A United spokesperson added that if you can't pick the seat on the map at the time of booking, then it's not open. But customer Carol McCarthy is skeptical.

"I think it's because they want me to upgrade and spend more money," said McCarthy.

And if that's not enough, some airlines are also now charging for aisle and window seats. All of this is making travel even more frustrating for families who want to sit together. The best way to avoid the seat assignment hassle: book your flights early and find "off peak" times to travel.

Copyright © 2023 WLS-TV. All Rights Reserved.