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On the Spot: Why seating on flights is up in the air

Question: Can an airline bump passengers from previously purchased, extra-legroom seats? Last summer we checked in online for a United Airlines Boston-to-San Francisco flight and learned that we had been bumped back to regular coach from our previously purchased Economy Plus seats. We thought paying for the extra legroom seats essentially guaranteed us those seats. Could the fliers in "our" seats have had some frequent-flier elite status giving them priority?

Stephen Martin

Portola Valley, Calif.

Answer: The answer to the first question is that airlines can pretty much do whatever they want. Sometimes they even do things they don't want — as was the case in this case, according to United. "We erred," said Charles Hobart, a United representative.

"What happened," Hobart continued, "was that flight times changed and departure times changed, so somewhere after they [the Martin party] had checked in, they lost that Economy Plus upgrade."

I appreciate United's honesty in acknowledging that it erred, but I didn't quite understand why flight times changing would cause Martin's party to lose the upgrade. That makes about as much sense as saying, "I was running late, so I decided to study the works of James Joyce." (If my being late meant I had to study James Joyce, I'd set my clocks back 30 minutes to be sure I was never late.) When I asked Hobart about the "If A then B" logic there, he acknowledged he didn't know quite why the change in departure times fouled up the seat selection.

But he could say with certainty that Martin & Co. weren't kicked out of their seats because a more elite customer asked for them. "That just doesn't happen," he said.

Before I shot back, "Yeah, right, and I'm a James Joyce scholar," I thought I'd check with a couple of experts for their perspective on the seating situation, which got a lot of ink last year, especially after families started having a hard time finding seats together that didn't require paying for premium seating.

As part of, Jami Counter has had a ringside seat to the seat issue, and he didn't assume, as many of us would, evil intent on United's part.

"I'd be very surprised if UA did this intentionally," he said in an email to me. "They'd quickly risk destroying a very successful ancillary revenue stream, since most customers wouldn't bother paying extra for Economy Plus seats if there were a decent chance of them being reassigned back to regular coach at the airline's discretion."

Counter noted that the new revenue opportunities for the airlines are not without some downsides for the airline too. "I do think the ability to pay extra for certain seats in the coach cabin introduces additional complexity into airline operations, particularly on the day of departure," he wrote. "So if there is weather or anything else that causes a lot of flights to be canceled or delayed, then this is one more thing that can potentially go wrong — especially if there is a change of equipment or the passenger has to be rebooked on another flight. And at that point, there are other higher-priority problems that the airport agents and staff are probably focused on, so this has the potential to create customer-service issues in those situations."

If that created a customer-service issue, it was minor compared with the firestorm over family seating. I asked Christopher Elliott, a consumer advocate who writes the syndicated "Travel Troubleshooter" column, whether the family seat follies, which became red-hot during the height of the summer travel season, was as big as it seemed or whether the attention had magnified those problems.

"These are isolated cases," he said in an email. "I really believe everyone from the ticket agents to the gate agents and flight attendants are doing their best to seat families with young children together."

But he also wasn't hopeful that such dilemmas would be solved anytime soon. "The trend is going in the other direction — ideally, airlines would charge for every seat reservation," he said. "The problem is that these reservation systems are maximized to earn revenue, not seat families together."

For 2013, expect to experience seating issues, which will be as varied as "Every seat is grayed out on the computer so I can't choose ours until 24 hours before the flight" to "I can seat my spouse and kids with me only if I pay $ (fill in the blank) more" to "I used my frequent-flier miles to get a seat upgrade and the airline took it away from me."

Martin asked me whether there was anything that could be done to solve his seat problem. Probably not for this one and others like it, other than rolling with the punches. And for airlines passengers, the hits will probably keep on coming.

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