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Beginner’s Guide to Choosing Seats on American Airlines

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New to flying with American Airlines? If so, you might not know about all the different seating options the airline has to offer — and how to snag the best one. TPG Contributor JT Genter shares what you need to know for your next AA flight.

A few months ago, a co-worker came by my office and was thrilled that she’d just secured a “great deal” to London. She knew about all of my travels and was happy to announce that she, her husband and their son would soon be on their way.

American Airlines Flight 80: seats available to my co-worker.
These seats were showing as available on AA Flight 80 as my co-worker booked her trip to London.

The only problem was that there were only middle seats left — unless they wanted to pay $218 more each way to sit together, or at least $443 more to sit together closer to the front. They were considering shelling out the money to sit together, but wanted to know my opinion first.

However, it turns out there really weren’t only middle seats left. There were dozens of unclaimed window and aisle seats available on their 2-3-2 arranged 767 to London — they just couldn’t see them.

Welcome to the crazy world of American Airlines seating.

The same exact flight seat map at the exact same time, as shown to an AA Platinum.
Here’s the same exact flight’s seating map, as shown to an AA Platinum member.

The Secret: Knowing The Different Categories Of Seats

There are four main categories of seats on American Airlines. Depending on your level of elite status and when you’re choosing your seats, each one is going to cost between $0 and hundreds of dollars to choose — if you’re able to choose it at all. Even more confusing, some seats are in two categories.

1. Main Cabin Extra

Main Cabin Extra on American Airlines' 787 Dreamliner. Photo by the author.
Main Cabin Extra on American Airlines’ 787 Dreamliner. Image courtesy of the author.

Main Cabin Extra (MCE) is what American Airlines calls its extra-legroom seats. Some planes — like AA’s 767s, 777-300ER, redesigned 777-200, 787 Dreamliner — have a dedicated mini-cabin of MCE seats at the front of economy while others — old 777-200, previous US Air A330s — only classify bulkhead and extra row seats as MCE.

MCE isn’t American Airlines Premium Economy; these seats don’t provide any additional service features. You’re simply paying more to get more legroom (36-37 inches vs. the 31-32 inches you’ll find in standard seats).

Cost for a general traveler to choose Main Cabin Extra seats for a flight from Dallas (DFW) to London (LHR).
Cost for a general traveler to choose Main Cabin Extra seats for a flight from Dallas (DFW) to London (LHR).

As you can see above, there can be a significant cost to choosing these seats. It’s going to set you back $143-150 one-way for each MCE seat from Dallas (DFW) to London (LHR). Before you balk at the price, consider that the extra legroom from these seats adds up. On some planes, AA could fit more seats into the same plane if all of the seats had the standard pitch. This means more tickets could potentially be sold. So, AA’s charging more to make up for this lost potential revenue.

AA Platinum and Executive Platinum never have to pay to select MCE seats.
AA Platinum and Executive Platinum never have to pay to select MCE seats.

But, these MCE seats aren’t costly for everyone. If you’ve got AAdvantage Gold status with AA, you’ll pay half the price to select these seats before check-in while AA Platinum and Executive Platinum members can choose MCE seats for free at any time. So, if you have status, make sure to log into your account when purchasing flights.

2. Preferred Seats

Many seats at the front of this AA 777-200 are Preferred Seats (seat map as viewed by an AA Gold member)
Many seats at the front of this AA 777-200 are Preferred Seats (seat map as viewed by an AA Gold member)

The next category of seats are Preferred Seats — indicated by green on the AA seat map. These seats likely have no more legroom than Standard seats (31-32 inches of pitch) but are simply located in “preferred” areas of the plane. This could mean closer to the front, a row with a missing seat or perhaps an exit row.

On the 767 my co-worker was flying, there were some exit row seats marked as Preferred, however these seats don’t recline so AA’s selling them as Preferred Seats rather than MCE seats.

Preferred Seats are free for AA Gold, Platinum and Executive Platinum members at all times. Unfortunately, the only way you’re going to get a Preferred Seat for free as a general flyer is if you don’t have a seat assignment and there are no Standard seats available. AA’s system will then assign you a Preferred Seat.

3. Elite/Full Fare Seats

The seat maps for general and elite members for the same flight two days before departure.
The seat maps for general (left) and elite members (right) for the same flight two days before departure.

This is where it gets tricky. AA sets aside many seats on each aircraft solely for AA elite members — and people booking full-fare (read: very expensive) economy tickets. This is how my co-worker was almost tricked into paying to select MCE or Preferred Seats.

If you don’t have status (and haven’t chosen a full-fare ticket price), you simply won’t see these seats on the map. Those with AA elite status will see a small grey triangle in the top left corner of these seats. Note that MCE, Preferred Seats and Standard seats can all be marked Elite/Full Fare. On the flight above, MCE seats 15D and 15E and Preferred Seat 17D are all held for Elite/Full Fare. General flyers can’t pay to reserve these seats, even if they wanted to.

The difference between seat maps can be drastic. In my opinion, there’s no justification for AA holding so many seats for elite members, except to force novice flyers into paying for a MCE or Preferred Seat.

The good news is these seats are freed up for all flyers at check-in. So — just like when you fly Southwest — you’re going to want to set an alarm for 24 hours before your flight to check-in.

4. Standard seats

The back of the AA 787 Dreamliner cabin. Image courtesy of the author.
The back of the AA 787 Dreamliner cabin. Image courtesy of the author.

Standard seats are simply those that aren’t labeled as MCE seats or Preferred Seats. These are usually located in the middle to back of the plane, unless there’s a row with a missing seat, as that row is probably marked Preferred.

If you don’t have elite status, you’re likely going to end up with a Standard seat unless you’re paying extra. But, now that you know Elite/Full Fare seats are freed up at check-in, you’ll end up with an aisle or window Standard seat rather than a middle.

Choosing Seats

Make sure to use SeatGuru to avoid bad seats on your flight.
Always use SeatGuru to avoid bad seats on your flight.

As each type of aircraft is unique, check SeatGuru for your flight to see the recommended — and not recommended — seats on your particular plane.

Bottom Line

So, what did I end up telling my co-worker to do? Unless they wanted the extra legroom in Main Cabin Extra, wait. When check-in opens 24-hours before the departure, the Elite/Full Fare seats are freed up for everyone.

Sure enough, when they checked-in, there were dozens of formerly-unavailable seats for them to choose from. They were able to select three aisle/window seats for the flight over the Atlantic.

Choosing a seat on American Airlines can be tricky, especially if you’re not used to the carrier’s options and deceptive seating maps. After reading through this guide, hopefully you’re better prepared to select seats for your next AA flight!

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