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If your flight is canceled, here's what to know about securing a seat assignment on your new flight

July 19, 2022
10 min read
The empty cabin of an airplane
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When your flight is canceled, your mind immediately starts racing to figure out logistics. It's easy to get swept away in the details of booking a new flight, verifying your luggage will make it on your new route and more.

However, one aspect many travelers overlook when rebooking is seat assignments. While getting any seat can quickly become more important than securing your favorite seat, where you sit does matter to some people — especially families trying to sit together.

Personally, I'm team aisle when it comes to seats on airplanes, and while things happen, I wouldn't be thrilled if my aisle turned into a window seat (let alone the middle) through no fault of my own.

The good news is that travelers should be refunded for any paid seats on canceled flights, though the specifics of policies vary by airline. If you received a seat assignment without paying — such as via an elite status benefit — you shouldn't have to pay for a seat assignment on the rescheduled flight, either. Don't necessarily expect to get your seat of choice, though.

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You need to be proactive

We'll get to refunds, terms and conditions in a moment, but the first thing to know if this happens is you need to be proactive with securing a seat assignment on your new flight following a cancelation if where you sit on the plane is a priority for you.

With flights taking off as full as they are, the odds are high that there aren't going to be a ton of seats still available when you're being moved to a new flight in the final days and hours leading up to departure. Don't just assume the airline is giving you and your family seats together — there may not be any available.

However, don't despair. Be proactive in trying to select your own seat, ask the airline for help and then keep an eye on the available seats as departure nears. Sometimes, certain seats are blocked for assignment until just before departure and often a few people will either be upgraded or have a change of plans at the last minute, thus freeing up some additional choices. Also, don't be shy at asking for seats together — even if all that is left is in an extra legroom seat that normally costs extra — if the airline canceled your original flight.

You can turn to seat alerts using ExpertFlyer (owned by the same parent company as TPG) as an extra layer of help.

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Paid seats will be refunded

(Photo by Claudio Kocking/EyeEm/Getty Images)

As mentioned, a traveler who paid for seat selection on a flight that is canceled is entitled to a refund for that seat across the board, including at the big three U.S. airlines — United Airlines, American Airlines and Delta Air Lines.

United's paid seat policy

United offers maximum flexibility for travelers. The carrier automatically refunds travelers the cost of their paid seat assignments in the event of a canceled flight, whether the flight was voluntarily or involuntarily canceled.

"Any paid seating assignments, such as Economy Plus or preferred seating, will be automatically refunded to the original form of payment after the scheduled departure time of the flight," a United spokesperson wrote in an email.

Economy Plus seats feature up to 6 inches of extra legroom and are located near the front of the economy cabin. These seats and all other preferred seats are complimentary for United MileagePlus members with Premier status (Silver, Gold, Platinum and Premier 1K). Depending on their status tier, these members get free preferred seating for themselves as well as for one to eight companions.

In short, if United is unable to reseat you in the same type of seat you originally booked, expect to be automatically refunded the ancillary charge if you paid one.

"There are certain scenarios where you may be reaccommodated in a seat other than the one you've purchased, such as in instances of irregular operations, a last-minute aircraft change or an oversell," United says on its website. "In these cases, you will be issued a new boarding pass. If you find that you have not been reaccommodated in a seat of similar or greater value, fees paid for the seat will usually automatically be refunded."

Related: How to get seats together as a family on Southwest Airlines

American's paid seat policy

Like United, American refunds paid seats for flights it cancels or the airline will attempt to rebook you in your preferred seat.

"We make every effort to reseat passengers in the same seat or in a like seat when that isn’t possible," a spokesperson for American said. "Customers can also use or the mobile app to view any available open seats if they’d like to make a different, available seat selection."

Customers can expect a refund of the paid seat charge if they are unable to get a similar seat to the one they had paid for.

However, unlike United, American will not extend a refund to passengers who cancel a flight on their own.

"Paid seats are nonrefundable if you change, cancel or miss your flight," according to the airline website. "Paid seats are nonrefundable if you change your seat assignment on the same flight to a lower priced or free seat."

There are two paid seat options, which are complimentary for AA Advantage Executive Platinum, Platinum and Gold status holders: Preferred seats and Main Cabin Extra. As you might suspect, preferred seats are located in preferred areas of the plane, which could mean they are closer to the front or in a row of two seats instead of three. Main Cabin Extra seats provide additional legroom (33 to 43.5 inches of pitch, depending on the aircraft, versus the 30 to 33 inches you’ll find in standard economy seats). Those sitting in Main Cabin Extra seats will also receive a free alcoholic beverage.

Delta's paid seat policy

As is the case with both United and American, Delta will refund any paid seat charges for canceled flights to your original payment form, while also attempting to rebook you in your desired seat.

"We will absolutely work to accommodate customers in their desired seat on an individual basis in these cases," a Delta spokesperson said via email. "We will be able to refund these payments to the original form of payment in the event that’s not possible."

Like American, when Delta rebooks customers on a new flight after canceling their flight, their seat selection will carry over to the new flight (based on availability).

But if a customer purchases a ticket with a preferred seat, and then cancels their ticket, the preferred seat is not eligible for a refund, per a Delta spokesperson.

"If the customer is impacted by an involuntary cancelation scenario, they would be eligible for a refund," they told me.

All Delta Medallion status holders — specifically Silver Medallion, Gold Medallion, Platinum Medallion and Diamond Medallion — receive free preferred seating, which may include seats at the front of the plane or in exit rows. Delta flyers can also upgrade to the carrier's extra-space economy class known as Comfort+, which provides up to 3 inches of additional legroom, among other perks. Unlike United's Economy Plus and American's Main Cabin Extra, Delta's Comfort+ is a separate fare class that requires Medallion members to get on a list for an upgrade; these members, especially top-tier ones, generally don't have issues clearing.

Unpaid seats

(Photo by Images By Tang Ming Tung/Getty Images)

In the case of free seat selection, you essentially start from square one.

An airline will often automatically give you the same seat if it’s available or a similar one if it is not; it may also allow you to pick your own seat once it rebooks you, but you are basically at the mercy of the airline in this case.

Bottom line

Overall, if an airline cancels your flight, it should refund you for any paid seats. If you choose to rebook a new flight in response to a cancelation, your airline will rebook you in the same seat as your original reservation (if available) or a similar seat. If not, you can pick your own seat once you're rebooked.

This process can be frustrating, especially when multiple people are traveling together, because sometimes one person in your party may get a seat assignment while another does not.

Airlines could soon be changing their ways, though. Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Transportation sent a letter to airlines urging them to adopt policies that minimize the chances of families getting separated on planes. When the USDOT begins monitoring this in November, it may respond with new regulations enforcing such rules.

For families booking flights and hoping to sit together, TPG senior family writer Tarah Chieffi has some advice for the three airlines we've discussed:

  • American: The only way to guarantee seats together on American is by choosing seats for your whole family at the time of booking.
  • United: Purchase a United economy fare or higher that includes complimentary seat assignments at the time of booking.
  • Delta: Avoid booking a Delta basic economy fare because those do not include advance seat selection; book your children on the same reservation as the adults in your party.

Read her guide for more tips on increasing the likelihood of getting seats together.

While airlines do their best to assign you a specific seat and keep families together, they do not guarantee this in the case of rebookings, especially last-minute ones. The flight you'll be joining is probably already quite full and it may only have a few available seats.

Don't lose all hope, though. Some gate agents may take pity on you and give you an even better seat than originally booked — for free.

"Oftentimes agents feel bad for you and can give you a seat that would normally be a paid one for free in that scenario," TPG senior aviation reporter Ethan Klapper told me. "And you can often ask an agent for a better one, like an exit row."

Related: What you can ask from an airline after a delayed or canceled flight

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