What Can You Do if United Airlines Changes Your Seat?

What to do if an airline changes your seat?


What Can You Do if an Airline Changes Your Seat? Specifically, what if United Airlines changes your reserved seat? Before we go further, we should acknowledge that unfortunately airline seat assignments are never guaranteed. Virtually all airlines' contracts of carriage state that seat assignments are not guaranteed and are subject to change without notice. Here's the relevant language in United Airlines' Contract of Carriage, in Rule 4 Reservations D. Seat Assignments:

“Seat assignments, regardless of class of service, are not guaranteed and are subject to change without notice. UA reserves the right to reseat a Passenger for any reason, including from a United® Premium Plus seat, Economy Plus seat, or from Preferred Seating for which the applicable fee has been paid, and if a Passenger is improperly or erroneously upgraded to a different class of service. If a Passenger is removed from a United® Premium Plus seat, Economy Plus seat, or from Preferred Seating for which a fee has been paid, and the Passenger is not re-accommodated in a seat of equal or greater value, or if a Passenger is downgraded from a class of service and is not re-accommodated in a seat in an equal or greater class of service for which a fee has been paid-, the Passenger may be eligible for a refund in accordance with Rule 27.”

While the above rule means that United should compensate you if you're downgraded or not put in the seat category you booked, that's cold comfort assuming you'd rather be in the seat you originally booked. It also does nothing about situations where you're still in the same class of service, but in a worse seat.


Our Situation: United Changed Our Seat Assignments After Online Check-In

We'd reserved our tickets in United Polaris Business Class nearly five months prior to our flight, and were able to check-in online at exactly 24 hours before our departure. At that point, we still had our reserved seats, 3L, 5L, and 7L, which appeared on our printed boarding passes. Unfortunately three hours later, I received the following email from United, with the subject line “You have a new seat on your flight to Honolulu”: “We had to change the aircraft type for your April 14 flight to Honolulu (HNL). Because of the switch, you have a new seat assignment. We’ve done our best to keep your original preference and you can also check for a new seat using the link below.”

I double checked, and the aircraft type was exactly the same: a 777-300ER, so the seat change wasn't in fact due to an aircraft change. I wondered if a Federal Air Marshal had commandeered my seat; this is always possible, although why my seat? Federal Air Marshals typically take an aisle seat, but all of the United Polaris Business Class seats have direct aisle access.

Since I didn't have time to call United and wait on hold, I waited until we got to the airport the next day, and went to the Gate Agent. I explained that I had selected our seats months ago and really wanted to fly in my original seat, and he was able to put me back in it.

But on the plane, sure enough, another passenger was already in my 3L seat. I showed him my boarding pass with 3L, and mentioned that I’d reserved these seats many months ago. He grudgingly agreed to move, although he did enlist the purser to try to get “his” seat back. The purser took both of our boarding passes to resolve it with the gate agents, and I finally got to keep my seat. The other passenger did kick up something of a fuss, and the purser was even checking with my husband to see if he’d move, so I intervened and again stressed that we reserved all three of our seats months ago, that we'd checked into our originally confirmed seats, and wanted to remain in these seats we carefully selected, as they're more private than the even numbered seats, better for sleeping, and less exposed to aisle traffic. 

The other passenger was obviously not a Federal Air Marshal, nor did he seem to be a VIP of any kind, so I wish United Airlines wouldn’t permit this kind of seat reassignment. While I appreciate that there can be aircraft changes, Federal Air Marshals, and other unforeseen reasons to change passengers' seats (which is why the Contract of Carriage doesn't guarantee seat assignments), this wasn’t one of them. Someone just decided to change our seats, even though we'd already checked in and had printed boarding passes. Airlines should want to provide an incentive to book flight tickets early, and one of those incentives should be better seat selection that doesn’t change, absent an aircraft change. This is what JetBlue does with JetBlue Mint: if you book early enough, you can secure one of the four original JetBlue Mint suite seats with a door that are in a 1-1 configuration rather than 2-2 configuration.


The Upshot

There’s never a guarantee that an airline will keep you in your original seat, no matter how early you select it. We recommend monitoring your flight reservations by regularly pulling up your reservation and checking your seat assignment, so that as soon as you notice a seat change you can contact the airline and either try to get your original seat back or move to another available seat that you prefer.

If able to check-in online, do so as soon as it opens and print your boarding pass. Even then, as my experience demonstrates, the airline could still change your seat. If that happens, contact the airline or go to the gate when at the airport and politely but firmly request to have the original seat that you have printed on your boarding pass. Unfortunately you may still be out of luck (for example if a Federal Air Marshal has commandeered your seat or you’ve been supplanted by a VIP or elite with higher status) but at least you’ll have done all you could do.

If an airline changed your reserved seat, what did you do? Were you able to get it back?

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9 months ago

That’s the fighting spirit Hilary!