Your business class ticket isn’t changeable — but, airlines can change your seat


My clients decided on a splurge anniversary trip to Europe. While they aren’t frequent fliers and didn’t have credit card miles, they still wanted it to be special, starting with the flights.

So back in May of this year, I booked them on a 90-day-in-advance nonrefundable business class trip. I found flights on United 747s. With that much advance notice they could get two seats, a window and an aisle, together and upstairs. They were thrilled.

By airline standards the tickets were not, perhaps, high revenue — about $3,850 each — but for my clients, who were paying their own money, it was a lot. Still, they decided it was worth it, especially with the great seats.

They’re leaving August 1. On July 11, we got a message in our airline computer. Instead of 14 J & K, it now shows 13K and “seat reaccomodation, new seat.” Huh? I called United’s help desk immediately.

The United agent says, “Oh, they have 13k and 14k.” These two seats are still upstairs, but window seats one behind the other. And, one seat is facing backwards, although in United’s configuration front-to-back seats cannot see each other. Not good.

I spoke to Vanessa at the agency help desk. She was nice, if not particularly helpful. She offered only to move the couple to two middle seats downstairs because nothing else was available.

After a few minutes research, she told me that it had been done manually by someone at United, but she didn’t know the reason. She said it is not United’s policy to move people just for the comfort of VIPs, but that it could be because someone was handicapped, or maybe security reasons. She honestly didn’t know.

(Considering the seats in question were UPSTAIRS on a 747, I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t be considered “handicapped accessible.” I suppose security could be an issue, but if someone needed an upstairs aisle seat near the cockpit, well, there are five rows up there, so why take a seat from a married couple obviously sitting together in the same record?)

Vanessa apologized, said she knew it must be frustrating, but added, “It is our policy that seat assignments are not guaranteed.” Yes, this makes sense if the airline changes a 747 to a 777, or something like that. But this was not an equipment change and it was two months after booking and a month from the flight. However, as she said, “Things happen.”

True, but if something had happened or does happen such that the clients wanted to change their trip, United wouldn’t refund the ticket. And, if something happened to make them want to change it even by a single day, United would charge them a $500 change fee plus the fare difference.

Another annoyance — the message on the seat change wasn’t flagged as a problem! Had I not been working on their hotels I might not have noticed.

In fact, had they booked online or I hadn’t decided to call United, they might have first noticed the issue on the plane. At least now there is a chance a gate agent could help.

Worst case — maybe someone will switch onboard, although with the new forward and backwards facing business class seats, I have found travelers are more particular. Not being able to sit with your spouse on an 11-hour flight in business class is admittedly a first world problem. But, for a couple in their late sixties, it’s not a great way to end a special trip.

The United agent did say that had they been in coach and paid for Economy Plus and then got put in regular seats, United would have refunded their money. And, she did suggest I email consumer relations, so maybe it is possible that United might compensate them in some way, eventually. However, that certainly wasn’t the airline’s plan. Because, again, seat assignments are not guaranteed.

Should airlines be allowed to change seat assignments on a whim?

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  • Rodolfo

    The question says “on a whim”, and I doubt it was really on a whim, though Janice wasn’t given the real reason. I agree the couple was treated badly here, and this shouldn’t happen. I hope someone will be nice enough to trade with one of them for an equivalent seat once on board, if it can’t be resolved sooner than that.

  • John Baker

    Upper deck, aisle, 5 rows back from the cockpit on an aircraft going to Europe…. I bet its a FAM. By law they get any seat they want even if it means bumping someone.

  • janice

    John Baker, you may well be right, another United agent thought it was a possibility. (And he also said it was “manually changed” Though you might think that another aisle upstairs would work as well that was assigned to someone traveling alone? (Also might think since the change was done by a human the human could have contacted our agency or the client to apologize? Yeah, we can dream.

  • jmiller45

    wouldn’t the United agent who “manually changed” the seat assignment have to log in to Shares in order to make the change? This should be a way of knowing who made the change and why.

  • emanon256

    I was thinking the exact same thing. In fact I was going to post it, but saw your post first. Also, the cockpit access is on the upper deck on a 747, so even more likely to be a FAM.

  • MeanMeosh

    Have to go with John Baker – probably an air marshal. Or it could just have been the gremlin in SHARES doing its favorite thing and booting people out of their seats for no reason…

    Similar thing happened to my wife and I several years ago. We had two seats together in J on AA’s old ORD-DEL nonstop. We get to DFW to check-in, and find out that we’ve been switched to scattered middle seats. Luckily a helpful agent at the Admirals Club in ORD was able to work some magic and get us two seats together, one row ahead of where we were originally supposed to be. There was only one person sitting in our two original seats, so I’m not sure what happened.

  • Kris

    Complain more. I’ve had this happen on the worlds premier airlines, including, but not limited to, Lufthansa First Class and Singapore Suites. 200+ flights into my relationship with United and still not a single involuntarily seat change.

  • janice

    Knock wood when you say that Kris!

  • LonnieC

    Loaded question, Chris. “On a whim”? Clearly no. For any other reason? Perhaps. Depends on the reason….

  • Guest

    Who’s Chris? This was written by Janice Hough.

  • LonnieC

    Oops. Sorry.

  • Peter

    A few years ago I paid for a first class seat with miles. After an equipment change, at the gate, I was informed I had been moved to an economy seat, middle. I asked if I would be refunded the extra miles
    I had paid for first class. I was told that wasn’t possible. This was all due to an equipment change, so
    all bets were off. Basically, sorry (while not being sorry).

    Someone will say they were “free” seats. When you earn and save miles, and spend hours trying to
    book seats from a limited inventory, in my mind, you are paying for the “free seats”.

    Is there any wonder that so many frequent fliers hate flying?

  • Jon Piminey

    Read the new book “Unsecure Skies”. It will tell you all about Air Marshal practices and how they operate. After reading that, I’m sure they WERE FAMS.