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Air travel is a complex business, and while many airlines try to keep passengers informed of service and schedule changes, being proactive can mean the difference between getting what you paid for and getting stuck with less. Today, TPG Contributor Nick Ewen offers some tips for figuring out what you can expect each time you fly.
When you’re booking a flight, you may want to know exactly what to expect on the plane. Will you have lie-flat seats in first class? Does every seat have personal in-flight entertainment? Is your plane WiFi enabled? These factors might impact your decision of which flight you take or even which airline you choose, and unfortunately, things can change right up until you actually begin boarding. So today I want to go through some strategies to help you determine what aircraft you’ll be flying, and what amenities you can expect to find onboard.
This wouldn’t be an issue if airlines had consistent fleets and aircraft utilization, but that isn’t the case. It seems like carriers are constantly adjusting their onboard offerings by updating seats, installing WiFi, and changing in-flight services. Even when it looks like your flight has a designated aircraft, last-minute maintenance, weather, or crew issues can result in equipment swaps that may impact your experience. That’s why it’s important to be armed with different tools for checking these things, both at the time of booking and throughout the lead-up to your flight.
Before you book
The starting point is, naturally, the booking process. When you’re purchasing a ticket directly from an airline, search results will generally give you at least an idea of what to expect on your flight. Personally, I find that Delta does the best job at detailing onboard amenities. Their search results show you various icons so you can decide whether a particular flight will be best for you. For example, here are the two direct flights Delta has from Orlando to Los Angeles on February 2, 2015:
Each of the icons is actually a direct link that will give you more information about the in-flight services. Notice that the evening flight has personal TVs and power ports, while the morning flight does not.
Unfortunately, this information isn’t as clear on other carriers, and it’s virtually non-existent when booking with a third-party website. Here is that same morning Delta flight on Travelocity:
All Travelocity tells you is that the plane is a Boeing 757. That might seem helpful, until you realize that Delta actually has 10 different 757 configurations in their fleet!
A good way to figure out which aircraft you’ll be traveling on is to match the seat map from the search results (or from the reservation page after you finish booking) with the corresponding seat map from the airline’s website. Fortunately, all of the major carriers have a fleet page, though some are much more detailed than others. Here are the links for the major domestic carriers for quick reference (Virgin America is the lone exception, as they do not provide any details on their website):
Another useful tool is SeatGuru, which provides a one-stop shop for seat maps (and traveler reviews) for just about every domestic and international airline. There are a couple of different ways to use the site. You could browse through the various different aircraft types for each airline, or you can search for your specific flight right from the homepage.
I used SeatGuru a few years ago for an award ticket I had booked on American Airlines. My flight from Miami to New York was scheduled to be operated by a Boeing 757, and I was surprised to see that there were only four rows of first class. By using SeatGuru, I was able to quickly determine that the plane was an international 757 with angle-flat seats (as opposed to the standard recliner seats found in first class on most domestic routes). Not bad for a flight under 3 hours!
The other nice thing about SeatGuru is that it can guide you toward the best seats on the particular aircraft you’ll be flying. For example, selecting seat 19F on a Delta 757 can be either a great choice or a terrible choice, depending on which 757 configuration you’re on. Seats with positive reviews are highlighted in green, so-so reviews are in yellow, and negative reviews are in red.
While SeatGuru is a great option, I offer the caveat that I have found the search results to be occasionally inaccurate. For example, the image above shows a search result for the same Orlando to Los Angeles Delta morning flight mentioned previously. The results from Delta indicate that this flight is actually operated by a Boeing 757, so this particular entry is incorrect. For the most reliable results, it’s best to confirm your aircraft and configuration from multiple sources.
Before the flight
Seat maps are also important after you book, as schedules and aircraft deployment change frequently in the months, weeks, and days leading up to your flight. Most changes are small, like those from one version of a plane to another. However, there are times when the scheduling and operations team will identify that a particular route or individual flight has too much (or not enough) capacity. In these cases, your flight might change from an A320 to a CRJ900, or go from a 737 to a 757. While seat maps are relatively similar within a particular model of plane, once you start switching aircraft, seat assignments can go crazy.
There really isn’t any hard-and-fast rule for this, but I generally recommend checking your itineraries at least once a month in the lead up to your departure. This is especially important if you don’t have elite status and/or are traveling with a spouse, family, or other group. I’ve found that after a schedule change or equipment swap (well in advance of the flight), my seat assignments sometimes change to “Unconfirmed” or “Not Assigned.” This is much easier to remedy if you catch it ahead of time than if you arrive at the airport with your family and all that’s left are middle seats.
So at what point does an equipment change give you grounds to request a free ticket change? Here again there are no absolute rules, as it varies based on the specific situation. Your frequent flyer status may also play into the request as well. Generally speaking, when you purchase a ticket, an airline is obligated to transport you from Point A to Point B, with no guarantees about the type of plane or amenities offered onboard.
For example, here’s the language from Chapter 9, Section 1 in US Airways’ Contract of Carriage:
“US Airways may substitute alternate carriers or aircraft, change seat assignment, and may alter or omit stopping places shown on the ticket in case of necessity. Schedules are subject to change without notice. US Airways is not responsible or liable for substituting aircraft, changing seat assignments, making connections, failing to operate any flight according to schedule, or changing the schedule of any flight.”
In other words, if your plane was supposed to have personal TVs, but was swapped for a plane that doesn’t, the carrier is under no obligation to rebook or compensate you. There’s no harm in calling to inquire about a potential change, especially if there has been a significant downgrade. Just keep in mind that the airline is well within its rights to deny your request.
A great example involves the global grounding of the Boeing 787 a couple of years ago. Many customers booked flights specifically hoping to fly the newest plane in the sky (or at least to take advantage of the newest amenities). If you had reservations when the 787 was grounded, you probably had to deal with aircraft changes. There was simply no way that a carrier could fly that plane.
That being said, there are cases when a change of aircraft can actually help you out. A few years ago, my wife and I used American miles to book round-trip first class tickets to Bali on Cathay Pacific. Our outbound long-haul segment was Toronto to Hong Kong, but a few months before departure, I noticed that our flight had been switched to a 777-300 with no first class. I immediately called the AAdvantage desk, and they worked with their Cathay Pacific liaison to reconfirm us in first class on the JFK-Hong Kong flight.
Again, your experiences with these requests may vary. A number of things could have prevented this resolution:
- An untrained or unwilling AAdvantage desk representative
- A sold out JFK-HKG flight
- An alliance liaison unwilling to open up award space
American would have been well within its rights to simply refund us the mileage difference between first and business class on those flights. Again, each situation is treated differently, so there’s no harm in calling to ask if you see that a significant aircraft change has been made.
Generally speaking, once you’re within a week of departure, the chances of these swaps are pretty slim, and within 24 hours, you should have a solid indication of which aircraft will be operating your flight. To double-check, log in to your account and find your reservation, or check your airline’s “Flight Status” page. Some airlines also devote a specific page to determining whether a particular service is offered, like Wi-Fi on Southwest.
Of course, even within those last 24 hours, things can go awry…
These are probably the worst of the bunch, as there’s no way to plan ahead to avoid them. A last-minute mechanical issue is the most likely culprit, but sometimes planes are simply swapped due to regular operational decisions. Again, the best defense is a good offense, so if you regularly check your seat assignment and flight status, you should notice these changes as soon as they happen. That way, you can be the first in line at the gate (or the first to call customer service) to make alternate seating or flight arrangements.
Unfortunately, there are times when you simply don’t know until you board, at which point you’re out of luck. However, you can always request compensation for an equipment swap after the fact, especially if it results in a class or seat downgrade. I have seen several instances where an equipment swap booted a paying passenger from Economy Comfort/Economy Plus/Main Cabin Extra to regular coach. If you laid out extra miles or paid cash for that seat, the airline is obligated to refund that payment.
Other issues aren’t nearly as cut and dry, but it doesn’t hurt to ask for compensation. I was once booted from an Economy Comfort seat on a Delta flight from Seattle to Atlanta after a last-minute equipment swap (I was Diamond Medallion at the time). When I brought it up with customer service, I was given 5,000 miles. I’m not advocating that you complain about every little thing, but when an aircraft change significantly alters your in-flight experience for the worse, it’s reasonable to bring your dissatisfaction to the attention of the airline.
Aircraft changes can impact your travel experience, but knowing about them is half the battle. It’s a lot easier to make changes months in advance than it is an hour before your scheduled departure time. Even with last-minute changes, there are ways to arm yourself with the information you need, and times where an airline should (or must) provide compensation for an equipment swap. I hope these strategies will help make your 2015 travels as stress-free and painless as possible!
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