Why Airline Seat Maps Only Show Bad Seats

After most of us purchase airline tickets, we choose where we’ll sit on the plane. We try to, anyway. What used to be a simple task is now a game of hide and seek. Let me explain what’s going on and what you can do about it.

LISTEN: Rick Seaney has more seat tips.

 Be sure you have the cheapest seat and cheapest flight

What Airline Seat Maps Don’t Show

Airline seat maps do not always show all available empty seats because that is up to the discretion of the airline. Airlines wield this discretion with sophisticated computer systems that decide what to show and what not to show (similar to their computers ‘deciding’ what ticket prices to charge at any given moment). It’s a practical business consideration since competitors could scrape this very proprietary info but there’s another big reason:

  • An empty seat is one more service airlines can sell to the public for a fee.

Tickets Don’t Guarantee Specific Seats

Surprisingly enough, buying an airline ticket is not the same as buying a seat, at least not a specific seat. What you get is transportation. Some examples:

  • American: Tickets entitle passengers to “travel
  • Delta: Ticket buyers purchase “transportation
  • United: Passengers are entitled “space
  • Southwest: Thanks to Southwest’s open seating policy, passengers in effect buy a place in the boarding line; its EarlyBird fee places passenger in the front of the line giving them more seats to choose from

What Seat Fees Actually Get You

Are some seats still free? Absolutely, but they tend to be ones that no one wants such as middle seats or aisles and windows in the back of the plane (often near the restrooms).

Seats that are available for a fee tend to come in two different categories:

  • Better location in the cabin
  • More legroom

Fees for more legroom are typically higher than location fees and are often bundled with other services like free checked-bags.

How to Get No-Fee Seats

Most airlines offer a few ways to avoid paying. Try the following:

  • Achieve elite status: This will usually allow you to bypass seat fees and sometimes qualify you for free upgrades.
  • Check seat maps often: Even if you’ve already selected your seat, keep returning to the seat map to see if better ones have been released. It happens.
  • Check at the 24 hour mark: Often 24 hours before departure – which marks the start of the check-in window – the biggest number of available empty seats are released. If you’re quick you might snag one.
  •  Take pot luck: Even Spirit, which charges for all advance seat selection, will give you a randomly computer-generated seat assignment for free.
  • Watch for changing seat fees: If you are willing to pay for a seat, keep checking seat fee prices at home, at the airport kiosk and even with the gate agent since these fee prices can drop if the seats don’t sell.

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Updated: May 14, 2015