Question: In the Oct. 12 Letters column in the Travel section, a letter headlined "Gloomy Skies" recounted that a US Airways customer service representative said that the airline was not legally obligated to honor seat reservations. Is this fact or something the rep just made up? Is it legal for the airline to do this? If so, can you then say that you are not going to fly and that the airline should refund your money? What if you pay $50 for a premium seat and you get moved to a middle seat? What are your options then?
Answer: The rep wasn't making it up. US Airways' contract of carriage says this under Section 04-04, Pre-Assigned Seats: "Seats assigned in advance are not guaranteed... Seat assignments may be subject to change and/or may be released for reassignment." Other airlines use similar verbiage.
Let's think of it this way: You're tired of preparing an entire Thanksgiving dinner so you order a turkey and all the trimmings from your favorite supplier of holiday meals. When you pick up your order, what awaits you is a roast chicken and carrots plus some green beans and a Jell-O salad. You object, and the provider says, "You bought a meal. That's what this is."
Similarly, what airlines are really selling you is a ticket from Point A to Point B; they are not selling you a seat.
"You don't have much recourse when you enter into a contract with an airline," said Chris Nemeth, a partner who does aviation work in the Chicago office of the McDermott, Will & Emery law firm. "Those airlines have made it clear that they have the right to change your seat if they want to or need to."
As a passenger, it's up to you to decide whether to make the trip. But getting back your money on an airline ticket? You can ask, but even the most optimistic gambler wouldn't take that bet. Here's the simple truth: Of the 52 cards in that deck, the airline holds 51 of them. You get the remaining one — I'm guessing it will be a two of clubs — and the jokers are just for good measure.
What can you do? "If a consumer is unable to get a favorable hearing from the customer service department, which will frequently be quite a bit more generous than the written contract requires, the best thing a consumer can do is publicize stingy behavior on the part of the airline," Nathan B. Oman, a law professor at William & Mary Law School in Virginia, said in an email. "Reputation and PR are often the most powerful forces disciplining corporate behavior."
If you've paid for a seat upgrade and don't get it, your money or miles/points should be refunded, depending on how you've paid for it, but don't expect any legal recourse, said Andrew Stoltmann of Stoltmann Law Offices in Chicago. "So long as the refund is sent, the customer is simply out of luck and … because the amounts in dispute are usually so de minimis, it is realistically impossible to sue the airlines."
For Matthew Phillips, associate dean of working professional programs at Wake Forest University School of Business in Winston-Salem, N.C., the issue becomes one of property rights, he said in an email, that leads people to "assume (not legally, but socially and even ethically) a claim to the overhead bins located nearest our seat [and to] assume varying levels of control over the window and shade on our row … and a claim to the legroom and the space to recline immediately in front of and behind our seat."
Which may explain, he said, "the increasingly antagonistic relationship between airlines and their passengers as well as the increasing informality of the travel experience." It's "the same societal trend that leads people to wear sweat pants and flip-flops on a plane now while we used to get dressed up for travel [that] also leads people to interact with fellow travelers in less formal — even crass — ways."
Your options? You can go all Don Quixote and start tilting at windmills. You can, as Phillips said, behave in "crass" ways — which is how the recent airline-seat-reclining episodes devolved. The expenditure of emotion solved nothing.
"There is only one thing more painful than learning from experience," said poet and playwright Archibald MacLeish, "and that is not learning from experience."
When you realize your seat selection means nothing, your best solution may not involve flying but rather walking — as in walking away from your rising pique and then rising above it. Until the law changes, the control over your reaction is really the only control you have. Taking the high road is almost always a journey worth taking.