Question: I recently booked flights from LAX to Washington's Reagan National for my husband, two daughters and me. An American Airlines reservation supervisor told me I would have to pay an additional $81 per seat to be guaranteed that my husband and I can sit with our daughters, ages 12 and 8, on this five-hour flight. When no two seats together showed on the online seat map, I called the airline. That's when the agent alerted me to the $81 "choice" seats. When I explained we had already paid $2,268.80 for our seats, she said, "No, you paid to travel, not for your seat." Seriously?
Answer: Seriously. Under airlines' contracts of carriage, you aren't guaranteed a specific seat, just transportation.
Even more seriously, when the airlines' need for maximizing revenue mixes with passengers' anxiety about where they will be seated — voilà! They have another source of income.
Here's how it works: Airlines use a practice called yield management to monkey with ticket prices, gauging demand to maximize revenue. You feel its effects every time you book a seat during the holidays, on short notice or under a host of variables that can create demand.
Now let us welcome you to seat yield management, which banks on your eagerness to know where you're sitting before you fly.
That's the term that Rick Seaney, chief executive of FareCompare.com, used when I asked him why airline seat maps increasingly show only middle seats, bad enough for a solo flier, never mind a family.
"That's not how many seats are free," Seaney said. "It's what [the airlines] want to show."
That's partly because airlines don't want their competitors to know how a particular route is doing and partly because better seats represent a revenue opportunity, Seaney said.
That drive for revenue has paid off for the airlines. Through just the third quarter of 2014, they collected $2.7 billion in baggage fees and $2.2 billion in change fees, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. (So far, seat fees aren't listed.)
Surprising? Maybe not. "Airlines, to varying degrees, have basically taken the position that the base airfare should include safe, reliable travel — and most everything else is a desire, not a need, which people should pay extra for," said Seth Kaplan, managing partner and an analyst with Airline Weekly, an industry publication.
"Increasingly, they've included seating preferences within that definition of what is a want rather than a need."
Except, of course, when it comes to being seated next to your young children.
A follow-up email to Dube from American (which did not respond to my request for further information) said this: "Our Main Cabin Extra and Preferred Seats products are the best and quickest option for customers to obtain seating together.... Still, we understand that some families may not be interested in Main Cabin Extra or Preferred Seats, but still need to sit together. We have internal processes in place, both in the days leading up to the departure date as well as at the airport, to assist families in obtaining seating together — even if they elect not to purchase Main Cabin Extra or Preferred Seats.
"Many of these families will check in and find that they have already been assigned seating together. For those who have not yet received seating together, our airport agents are able to assist families in obtaining appropriate seating."
Five options that may help you score the seats you need/want:
The Seat Alerts app by ExpertFlyer.com. It notifies travelers of seats together, charging 99 cents for each requested alert. I've never tried finding more than two together, but it's worked each of the four times I've used it.
Go to the airline's website the minute — and we mean on the dot — you can check in. That's when seats usually open up. Most everyone knows this, and there's often a seat scramble. But it also worked for me last summer when four of us wanted to be seated together on flights to and from Bermuda.
Plead your case to the gate agent if the last-minute tactic doesn't work. John DiScala, founder of the popular website JohnnyJet.com, often takes a box of chocolates as a thank-you for those helpful agents who are besieged with requests on increasingly packed planes.
Ask a flight attendant to see whether they can get someone to move. A sweetener — paying for a drink or a movie for the move-e — sometimes helps parents to persuade another passenger.
Use an airline that doesn't play this game. Southwest, of course, doesn't assign seats and will board families usually after the A group but ahead of the B group. (Southwest's early-bird boarding costs $12.50 a pop each way, although that adds $100 to the round-trip tab for a family of four and might not be necessary.) Alaska offers only two options — first class and main cabin, a spokesman said in an email, that are available "at the time of booking, on alaskaair.com during the 24-hour check-in window, or using our Alaska Airlines mobile app."
If you set your mind to it, you can win at airline seat chicken. That's something to crow about.