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Sunday Reader Question: Getting Better Seat Assignments on Partner Flights

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TPG reader Doug asks:

“I was able to get 3 tickets from Minneapolis to Sicily on Delta with a stopover in Paris for 60,000 miles each—something I didn’t believe was possible even after spending about a month reading mileage websites until I read your article.

On the Minneapolis-Sicily itinerary, one of the segments is an Air France flight from DTW to CDG. I see only limited seating options available through the Delta website, and can’t figure out how to access my reservation through the Air France website. Do you have any insight regarding how I can get a better seat on the Air France flight, or whether there’s the equivalent of Economy Comfort available to Delta award travelers on Air France.”

Alliances and partnerships are great for opening up more award options, but many problems arise from poor inter-airline IT systems once the tickets are booked. The issue that many people (myself included) run into is seat assignments. Remember that in most cases the operating carrier has final control over the seats on their plane, so even if you select a seat via their partner airline or online travel agency, its subject to change at any time. Most airlines have strong language stating that seating assignments are not guaranteed and subject to change. Also factor in constantly changing aircraft types (airlines will put bigger/smaller planes on certain routes to adjust to demand) and you’ll find that seats can change almost as much as ticket prices fluctuate.

However, if you are savvy you can proactively secure seat assignments in a number of ways:
1) Ask the airline who issued your ticket (in this case Delta) for your partner airline (Air France) record locator. Most airlines will generate partner record locators for each partner airline that you fly. Once you have that number, try pulling up your reservation on the operating carriers website. You can usually get these once your awards are booked, however not all airlines will provide them. I recently used United miles to book Newark to Singapore on Singapore Airlines and they couldn’t give me the Singapore record locator, yet when I used ANA miles to book a Singapore Airlines flight, the partner record locator showed up online so I was able to log-in to Singaporeair.com and choose my seat and “Book the Cook” option.

2) Call the airline who booked your award. Specifically with Delta, they have direct contacts with their colleagues at Air France and can often submit requests that get answered sooner than if you call yourself.

3) If you can’t get a partner record locator to select your seat online, call the partner airline and ask a phone rep to give you seat assignments. Air France often has long hold times to speak to reps, so I’ve emailed them (contact.en.us@airfrance.fr) and asked for an exit row seat and they politely processed my request. Just include as much information including the exact seats that you want. I also ended my email with a line in French thanking them for their assistance. It never hurts to be nice!

If the seats you want aren’t available, you can set Seat Alerts with ExpertFlyer so if they ever become available, you can get a notification instantly emailed. For example, if the exit row is taken on an upcoming flight and there are only regular seats, you can set alerts on each exit row and if they become available you will be notified.

If you don’t have any luck before the day of departure, make sure you get to the airport early and ask for your preferred seats at check-in and at the gate. Often some of the most prime seats (like the bulkheads) are held for gate assignment so they can accommodate passengers with disabilities or those who need the baby bassinet. If there is no need for those passengers, gate agents will randomly assign people to those seats – unless they know someone specifically (and nicely) requested them.

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