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“Reader Questions” are answered twice a week by TPG Senior Points & Miles Contributor Ethan Steinberg.

It doesn’t matter if you pay for your ticket with miles or cash or whether you choose to travel in economy, business or first class; the fact is that not every seat in the cabin is created equal. TPG reader Kathy wants to know why she’s unable to select certain seats for an upcoming United flight …

Why does United block certain rows when I go to select my seats?

TPG READER KATHY

When looking at a seat map to select your seats, it can often be hard to tell the difference between seats that are blocked (i.e. you can’t select them) and seats that have already been reserved by someone else. Still, there are several different reasons an airline might block seats, so let’s take a look at a few of the more common ones.

While showing off a first class boarding pass is sure to make your friends jealous, flashing a picture of you in Seat 1A on a 15-hour flight may be even better. However, this isn’t always possible, as a number of airlines have been known to reserve Seat 1A in first class for elite members of their respective loyalty programs. A good example of this would be Japan Airlines, which blocks the window seats 1A and 1K on its 777-300ERs until the day of departure. If you can’t select them, don’t worry; seats 2A and 2K will give you just as good of a flight experience.

Thankfully Korean Air was willing to let me select seat 1A in the nose of its 747-8.

Outside of seats in row 1 that sound prestigious (even if they’re identical to the seats in row 2 behind them), airlines might also reserve specially configured seats. Qatar’s Qsuite business class has absolutely set the gold standard for the industry, with incredibly well-designed suites with closing doors. If you’re traveling in a group, you can even convert the center four seats into a quad layout and talk or work with your group. TPG got to try this out firsthand when he flew back from South Africa with his parents and TPG Reviews Editor Nick Ellis. While you can select some seats in the Qsuite cabin online, Qatar will only let you select a middle pair or quad if you’re traveling with someone else. This means you’ll have to call in to make the selection, but don’t be dissuaded if you see all the middle seats “blocked” on ExpertFlyer.

Another reason you might see seats blocked off is that the airline needs them for a very important purpose — including rest spaces for pilots or other crew members. Larger jets like the 777, 747 and A380 have dedicated crew rest spaces tucked away in areas you’d likely never notice, but on medium-sized planes like the 757 and 767, airlines will often block off certain seats for crew rest during long-haul flights.

Finally, once the departure time of a flight approaches, most airlines will turn the seat assignment process over to the gate agent(s) in charge of the flight. You should be able to select seats during the online check-in process, but once you’re within an hour or two of your flight, you may need to visit the gate if you’re wanting to switch seats. This “gate control” allows agents to more easily accommodate confirmed passengers without a seat assignment, and it also enables them to clear standby passengers. However, if you ask nicely during a lull in the agent’s pre-flight procedures, you may be able to score a better seat.

Bottom Line

There are a bunch of different reasons airlines might block seats, but in most cases you can simply pick the next available row and it won’t matter all that much. If you truly have your eyes set on seat 1A, you can try calling the airline directly or checking in for your flight exactly 24 hours in advance when the hold might expire. If you’re flying Qatar Qsuites with a friend (or three), make sure to call in and reserve your double bed or Quad office in the sky.

And when all else fails, check-in with the gate agent an hour or so before your flight. You never know when a polite request might improve your ride.

Thanks for the question, Kathy, 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.

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