Q 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?
A 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 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 this group party to lose the upgrade. 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 these travelers weren't kicked out of their seats because a more elite customer asked for them. "That just doesn't happen," he said.
Before responding to that, I thought
As part of SeatGuru.com, 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 --
"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."
Today's column comes from Catharine Hamm of the Los Angeles Times.