Recently, a friend of mine was trying to book a last minute flight from Chicago to Atlanta and at the time American Airlines was the cheapest option. He rarely flies American Airlines and did not have any form of status which meant when he clicked through to seat assignments he was shown a seat map with no seats available, well no free seats. The flight appeared to be mostly full and he would pay an additional fee for either a preferred seat or a main cabin extra (MCE) seat. I logged into American Airlines to see what was going on and quickly found 8 regular (free) seats available in addition to the premium seats he saw. It lead to me discover a very shady practice that American Airlines has implemented during the seat selection process.

Let me be clear, Delta Airlines implemented a similar practice, but clearly advertised the addition of “Basic Economy” fares and stated that seat assignment will NOT be available until check-in. American Airlines seems to have implemented a similar practice, but I do not believe they do a good job of telling customers. In fact, I think American Airlines is not telling customers in an attempt to trick them to pay a few extra dollars for an assigned seat.

Basically, if you are a non-elite member and you purchase a discount economy fare, American has a nasty habit of only showing available middle seats or no included seats at all. This can be especially troublesome when booking with a companion since it appears the only way to sit next to your travel partner is by paying an additional fee. Below are available seat maps for the same flight, on the left I am logged into my AAdvantage account and on the right, I continued as a guest. As you can see, there are plenty of available seats (“Elite Seats” are marked with a star and are not available to “Non-Elites” at the time of booking). I believe American is trying to trick customers into paying a little extra to avoid sitting in a dreadful middle seat on a transatlantic flight.

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Luckily, before you select your flight, American will allow you see all available seats. You can click on the “Seats” hyperlink to see all available seats before you select your flight. This will help you get an idea of which seats you can get, for free, at the Check-In time (24-hours prior to departure).

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At 24-hours prior to departure, you can check-in to your flight and will find previously blocked seats are now available. If all else fails, it never hurts to call American or talk to a gate agent to request specific seat assignments. On more than one occasion I have seen non-elite members receive MCE seats at the gate by simply asking if a better seat was available.

I think the way American Airlines is handling seat assignments is shady. I do not disagree with the practice, but I disagree with the implementation. Delta Airlines made it very clear when purchasing “Basic Economy” fares that seat assignments would not be available until checking into the flight, but American seems to hide that fact.

Also, I do not understand why Elite Seats (indicated with a star on the above left seat map) are blocked off. I understand blocking off a few seats for elite members, but on the above example, American basically blocked off the entire middle section of the 77W used on this flight. I may be pessimistic, but it is hard for me to believe that this was not implement to get non-elites, who may rarely fly American, to shell out a few extra dollars at the time of booking. I am fine with the practice of implementing a “Basic Economy” fare class, but I wish American would do a better job of disclosing it.