July 15, 2024

The Haggler: A Few (Middle) Seats Still Available

The problem with airline nightmare stories, at least for this column, is that they are usually so specific. That is, they typically involve mishaps that emerge from highly particular circumstances that many people will never encounter.

Case (briefly) in point: Thane Kreiner of San Francisco wrote recently about a continuing hassle with Air France, which the Haggler calls le hassle continuing avec Air France, because the Haggler knows very little French. Mr. Kreiner bought two round-trip, “premium voyageur”-class tickets to Paris, for $5,310. When Air France e-mailed a confirmation, Mr. Kreiner noticed that the type of plane for this flight, scheduled for late June, had changed and that he and his companion would be sitting in a different, and more downmarket section of the jet. He asked for and was given a refund of $925 per ticket.

In mid-May, Air France switched the type of jet yet again, this time back to the original model. When Mr. Kreiner asked if he could return that $925 and get the seats he had initially booked, an Air France representative said no. Instead, the rep offered to sell Mr. Kreiner those premium seats for double what he had initially paid.

“Our position is that we purchased our original seats at a low price and the seats were made unavailable through no fault of our own,” Mr. Kreiner wrote, “so Air France should honor our original purchase price.”

The Haggler sent Mr. Kreiner’s story to Air France, which, by the way, doesn’t make it easy for reporters to get in touch. (How about a media contact phone number, Air France, hmm? That would be bon.) A few days later Mr. Kreiner wrote the Haggler to say that the airline would honor the original fare and restore his tickets to the premium voyageur class of service.

Good news, but do you see what the Haggler means about specific?  Fortunately, the Haggler has been flying recently, and his own travails have a far more universal bent.

He speaks, of course, about the never-ending quest to avoid the middle seat.

Only half of the problem with flying stems from the airlines, you see. The other half stems from humanity, by which the Haggler means the dudes who sit next to the Haggler. Generally speaking, these are people who spend much of the flight engaged in some kind of repulsive habit, like the gent on a recent trip to Albuquerque who harvested excretions from his eyes, nose and ears for roughly a third of the flight.

No, one can’t escape these people. But by avoiding the middle seat, you aren’t bookended by them, either.

Unfortunately, securing a window or aisle seat is a lot harder than it looks, especially if you book only a day or two before you fly, as the Haggler did recently for a Delta flight bought through Expedia. Early in the buying process, a page popped up showing the seats available for the flight, including a tempting mix of window and aisle seats. But you could not reserve one until after you bought a ticket. At that point, lo and behold, the Haggler was assigned a middle seat, and none of the window or aisle spots were available.

Was he given short shrift by going through Expedia? Delta’s Web site, it turned out, displayed some window and aisle seats for the same flight, but when the Haggler called the airline to see if one could be reserved, a rep said those seats were set aside for the “disabled.”

“Are you expecting 20 disabled people on this flight?” the Haggler asked.

The rep could do little more than repeat the policy and advise the Haggler to call or book online two hours before the scheduled 8 a.m. departure. At 5:45 on the morning of the flight, the Haggler called Delta and, after 50 minutes on hold, a rep explained that the Haggler could book an aisle seat on the second leg of the flight, but that the best seats on the first leg would be available only at check-in at the airport.

SO, here’s the question: If it’s impossible for fliers in such circumstances to land good seats until arriving at the airport, why show those seats as available online? Doesn’t that open Expedia and Delta up to accusations that they induced customers to buy a ticket with goodies that weren’t available?

“All airline seat assignments are requests, rather than guarantees,” wrote an Expedia spokesman, Devon Nagle, who noted that when the Haggler booked his flight, the page with the seat map offered this caution: “We will forward your seating request to the airlines but we cannot guarantee that your request will be honored.”

Actually, Expedia could surely guarantee that in this case the Haggler’s request would not be honored. Seriously, if it is clear after you press the “buy” button that only middle seats can be booked, it must be clear before. So again, why show those unobtainable seats?

Because Delta shows them, was Mr. Nagle’s reply.

Not exactly a satisfying answer. But over to you, Delta. Why show your customers seats they can’t reserve?

Two days later, a spokesman e-mailed this reply: “Delta recognizes that there could be issues for some passengers who want to assign their seats through delta.com and we are working to address those concerns.”

Let’s hope that fix happens soon, though it is already too late for the Haggler. On the flight in question, he wound up in a middle seat — beside a man who stuffed his mouth with chewing tobacco and spat into a juice bottle for more than two hours.


E-mail: haggler@nytimes.com. Keep it brief and family-friendly, and go easy on the caps-lock key. Letters may be edited for clarity and length.

Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/12/your-money/12haggler.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

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