Why Can’t I Select Any of My Flight’s Window or Aisle Seats?

Oct 27, 2017

This post contains references to products from one or more of our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products. Terms apply to the offers listed on this page. For an explanation of our Advertising Policy, visit this page.

“Reader Questions” are answered twice a week — Mondays and Fridays — by TPG Senior Writer Julian Mark Kheel.

If you’re not a fan of Southwest’s boarding procedure in which passengers pick their seats on a first come, first served basis, you might presume that buying a ticket on American, Delta and United will at least allow you to preselect the seat you want. But TPG reader Karthik notes that doesn’t necessarily appear to be the case…

When I logged into AA’s website to choose seats on my flight from New York to San Francisco, the only available seats in economy were middle seats. There were a lot of premium economy seats for additional costs wide open — is it possible that AA is intentionally blocking window and aisle seats?

TPG Reader Karthik

Airlines have spent the last several years refining the art of the ancillary fee, in which customers pay extra for additional services on top of the basic airfare. US carriers have earned billions of extra revenue using this technique, and one of the major drivers of that increase — aside from baggage and change fees — is seat selection fees.

But of course, the airlines know that the only way to make customers pay more for a better seat is to block the best ones from being selected for free. And over time, that technique has expanded to include blocking not just the “best” seats, but practically every non-middle seat in the entire cabin.

Let’s take a look at the American route that Karthik booked from New York (JFK) to San Francisco (SFO). Here’s the current seat map for one AA flight on that route for a date in mid-January:

IMG-aa-jfk-sfo-seat-map

Sure enough, the only window and aisle seats that appear to be available are the ones that cost extra. And not just a little bit extra — you’ll pay at least $66 for the privilege on just the one-way flight.

But how do we know that all those free window and aisle seats haven’t already just been snapped up by other passengers? Well, this is actually where a little bit of elite status can come in handy. Because even when the airlines block window and aisle seats, they release them to their elites.

So when we look at that exact same flight but signed into aa.com as an Executive Platinum elite, suddenly the seat map looks like this…

IMG-aa-jfk-sfo-seat-map-elite

Not only are all the $66+ Main Cabin Extra seats available for free to top-tier American elites, but all the window and aisle seats behind those Main Cabin Extra seats are now open too. In fact, not a single one of them has been assigned yet to other passengers.

By all means though, let’s not pick solely on American here, because Delta and United do the same thing (though perhaps not to the same extent). Here’s the seat map for a flight between New York (LGA) and Atlanta (ATL) on Delta for a passenger without elite status…

IMG-dl-lga-atl-seat-map2

And here’s that exact same flight, but now showing the seats available for free to Delta’s elites

IMG-dl-lga-atl-seat-map-elite

You can see all the window and aisle seats that aren’t available if you don’t have elite status. To be completely fair to Delta, unlike American, it offers quite a few free aisle and window options further back in the aircraft, and even AA has more options when you’re not flying on a transcontinental route like JFK-SFO, since the airline’s A321T is configured so that first- and business-class seats essentially take up half the aircraft.

But the important point to keep in mind here is that those elite window and aisle seats might not all be taken before check-in, and when check-in occurs, sometimes those seats are released to everyone. It’s also possible an agent at the airport will be able to place you in one of those blocked seats on the day of the flight, depending on how full it is.

So, Karthik, if you’re having trouble finding a window or aisle seat, your options are to pay for a seat assignment or cross your fingers and hope you can get a window or aisle at check-in. Thanks for the question, and if you’re a TPG reader who’d like us to answer a question of your own, tweet us at @thepointsguy, message us on Facebook or email us at info@thepointsguy.com.

Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card

Earn 90,000 bonus miles and 10,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $3,000 in purchases on your new card in the first three months of card membership. Offer ends 11/10/2021.

With Status Boost™, earn 10,000 Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $25,000 in purchases on your Card in a calendar year, up to two times per year getting you closer to Medallion Status. Earn 3X Miles on Delta purchases and purchases made directly with hotels, 2X Miles at restaurants and at U.S. supermarkets and earn 1X Mile on all other eligible purchases. Terms Apply.

Apply Now
More Things to Know
  • Limited Time Offer: Earn 90,000 Bonus Miles and 10,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $3,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months. Offer expires 11/10/2021.
  • Earn up to 20,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) with Status Boost® per year. After you spend $25,000 in purchases on your Card in a calendar year, you can earn 10,000 MQMs two times per year, getting you closer to Medallion® Status. MQMs are used to determine Medallion® Status and are different than miles you earn toward flights.
  • Earn 3X Miles on Delta purchases and purchases made directly with hotels.
  • Earn 2X Miles at restaurants worldwide, including takeout and delivery and at U.S. supermarkets.
  • Earn 1X Miles on all other eligible purchases.
  • Receive a Domestic Main Cabin round-trip companion certificate each year upon renewal of your Card. *Payment of the government imposed taxes and fees of no more than $75 for roundtrip domestic flights (for itineraries with up to four flight segments) is required. Baggage charges and other restrictions apply. See terms and conditions for details.
  • Enjoy your first checked bag free on Delta flights.
  • Fee Credit for Global Entry or TSA Pre✓®.
  • Enjoy an exclusive rate of $39 per person per visit to enter the Delta Sky Club® for you and up to two guests when traveling on a Delta flight.
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees.
  • $250 Annual Fee.
  • Terms Apply.
  • See Rates & Fees
Regular APR
15.74%-24.74% Variable
Annual Fee
$250
Balance Transfer Fee
N/A
Recommended Credit
Excellent/Good
Terms and restrictions apply. See rates & fees.

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.