Galley Gossip: A question about losing booked seats on the airplane

Dear Heather,

I have a question. We have a flight booked to Orlando with an airline that has seat assignments. Twice they have changed our seats so that we are not sitting together. The first time we were able to have it corrected. But this time, I guess the flight is completely booked and so far they have not been able to find us two seats together. My concern is that my mother is a senior and afraid to fly. Is there anything I can do? And why do the airlines do this? We booked months in advance and used this airline to make sure we would be sitting together. We flew to Orlando last year and did not have this problem. Does this happen often? Just wondering and looking for advice.

Thank you.


Dear Sue,

I’m sorry to hear of your troubles with the airline. What happened to you is not right and unfair. Now I could tell you why I believe this keeps happening, but the truth is I don’t know for sure, so I emailed your question to my friend who is an agent for the same airline I work for at the Los Angeles International Airport.

Before I share what my friend, the agent, had to say, I just want you to know that I understand what you’re going through, having to worry about whether or not you’ll be able to sit next to your elderly mother, as I have a two year-old I travel with regularly. When traveling on my flight benefits, the odds of getting two seats together are slim to none. There’s nothing worse than having to beg and bribe people to switch seats. Talk about stress.

Sure, you can ask the flight attendant to help you, but due to the fact that the flights are staffed with minimum crew, and the crew is busy checking emergency equipment, setting up the galleys, greeting passengers at the door, and dealing with all that carry-on luggage that will not fit into the overhead bin, the flight attendants will not be able to assist until the boarding process is over. Boarding, by far, is the busiest time for a flight attendant, which is why you probably won’t see one until seconds before the aircraft door is shut, which just adds to your stress. You don’t need more stress. You’ve been through enough already.

Now here’s what my friend, the agent, had to say about your lost seats, and what you can do about it in the future…

Yes, it happens more often than not, unfortunately. Some of the time it is an equipment change, meaning the original aircraft scheduled is switched out for one of many reasons (a completely different panel of Q & A’s). When this happens all of the reserved seats are dropped and need to be re-assigned. If there is a schedule change (sometimes people are unaware of it because it may only be by a few minutes), this will cause seat assignments to drop, too. This is probably one of the most frustrating situations for not only passengers, but for agents as well,because most of the time the solution cannot be reached until you are standing at the gate prior to boarding the flight.

My suggestion: call the airlines and inform them that your mother needs wheelchair assistance (Even if she doesn’t, because she is elderly). At the time of the call, ask again if there are seats together because of the fact she will need assistance. If they are unable to switch them over the phone, don’t just take the closest seats together (especially if one is a middle seat). Instead opt to take a window and an aisle. Once you get to the airport and remind them you need a wheelchair, ask again if they can change seats. Most likely they will advise you to ‘check at the gate’. Please be patient. Although I realize this is frustrating, it’s not over yet.

Once you get to the gate, go to the gate agent. The gate agent has the ability to unblock seats and if willing to help, could page some people to switch a window next to your mom for the window you are holding, for example. If all else fails, once you get onboard the aircraft (and by the way, if your mom takes the wheelchair ride, you’ll be boarded first), ask the people seated near you or near your mom to swap seats.

As an agent, I see this day in and day out, and I sympathize with your aggravation. My grandparents had a similar situation last year when traveling for the holidays. I gave them the same advice after they were getting upset when they weren’t getting anywhere over the phone. I urged them to be patient and polite (agents do not respond well to screamers) and ask at the points I suggested. Sure enough, hours later, they arrived safely and at the last minute – they were about to give up – were able to swap seats and sit together on the flight after all.

I hope that helps, Sue. Thanks for writing and good luck!


Photos courtesy of Joshuacw (top of page) and Viviandnguyen (above)