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Seat Assignments and the Contract of Carriage

The Contract of Carriage is the “fine print” that accompanies your ticket. It is the legal document that governs the terms and conditions of your ticket purchase. While you do have certain basic rights (take a look at the Department of Transportation’s website https://www.transportation.gov/airconsumer for more details) most airline tickets have many different restrictions and limitations. Most passengers do not take the time to read the contract of carriage that they agree to when purchasing tickets.

One thing that often catches passengers off guard is their seat assignments. While some fare types such as Basic Economy do not allow customers to choose their seats, other fare classes do. Many people pay extra for the privilege of selecting the exact seats they want. And these same people are surprised when they show up to the airport to find that their seats have changed.

The first thing to understand is the fine print. Even if you paid extra to reserve specific seats, the airlines reserve the right to change seating assignments without notice. This happens for a variety of reasons such as a change in aircraft type or to help seat a family together.

The second thing to understand is that you agreed to this when you purchased your ticket. Regardless of fare class you are not actually buying a specific seat, even if you are able to choose one. In the end, as you will find in the Contract of Carriage, you are simply paying for a seat on the flight.

In most cases, if you have to be moved it will be to a similar seat. An aisle for another aisle or a window for another window. Most of the time it will be either nearby your old seat or further forward (which is often more desirable).

If your new seating assignment causes any problems, talk to the gate agent first. The sooner you can talk to an agent the better as most flights these days go out completely full. Once you board the plane it may not be possible to change seats. The Flight Attendants are usually not able to handle seating changes.

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Jay Muller

Author of The Flight Advisor

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