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Why You Might Have to Pay to Avoid the Dreaded Middle Seat

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Some veteran travelers have a name for it: agony by design. There are first class, business class, premium economy, and economy seats. If you happen to get stuck in the dreaded middle seat in coach, there’s last class. It’s happening more and more as airlines are upselling the lowest fares with seating charts that show you what you get by booking that low fare—the center seat. Watch Peter Greenberg’s report for CBS This Morning to learn more:

Interestingly enough, it’s all because the three major legacy airlines—United, Delta, and American—have discovered something surprising. At American, the airline found out that 87 percent of its passengers have only flown the airline once, and it was all based on the lowest fare.

The other 13 percent were higher yield business travelers who were paying higher fares and essentially supporting the airline. What that means is that the big three were actually competing with no-frills airlines like Frontier, Allegiant, and Spirit.

As a result, American, United, and Delta now market the lowest fares with the most number of Draconian restrictions. With airlines such as Spirit and Frontier, passengers’ decisions to fly are almost always driven by fare—even a $5 fare differential can move the market.

To compete, Delta (American and United will follow suit shortly) is now selling just the basic economy fare—you pay for everything else, including baggage. If you’re a frequent flyer you can’t get upgraded, no matter what your status. The fare does not allow seat assignments until after you physically check in. You know what that means…the middle seat has your name on it!

In a world where decisions are driven purely by rate, it’s no wonder that the center seat is now center stage. So how can you avoid the dreaded middle seat?

It starts when you make your reservation. Most of you are inclined to book and pay online. When you do that, you are often making a classic mistake.

The presumption is that all the inventory is online. Not even close. Airlines hold back certain seats, at certain fares, and on some flights it may be as much as 20 percent of the total amount of available seats.

What this means is that if you’re online and you go to the seating chart provided by the airline, what you’re seeing isn’t the total number of available seats. What you’re seeing is the number of seats the airline chooses to make available at that particular time.

Bottom line: many online airline seating charts don’t tell the whole truth.

So, look what’s available online: the dreaded middle seat. Airlines do this in an attempt to upsell you a less miserable seat. But in the coach section, buyer beware: Many airlines sell the preferred coach seats based on how close they are to the front of the plane. That also includes middle seats.

But there’s a way around this. It’s called having a conversation.

Yes, talking to a human being. The screen at the airline’s reservation center almost always shows more seats than you’re seeing. That’s when you can often snare a lower priced window or aisle seat.

Another option before you make that call is to go to SeatGuru.com. The website shows the airline seating configurations for all the major airlines based on aircraft type. So find out if you’re on a 737, 757, 747, or Airbus, look at the charts, and then call the airline. You’ll see where there are some great secret seats on your flight.

Remember, each aricraft is configured differently. For example, on some 757s the airlines will market the exit rows at a premium to other coach seats. But smart travelers know the seats to get are 10A and 10F. Why? Because the ninth row is the exit row over the exit doors, and on those rows, there’s no 9A or 9F.

Translation: if you’re sitting on the window seat in 10A or 10F, there’s no seat in front of you and you have the most legroom on the plane. So if you need to use the facilities during the flight, there’s no need to climb over the two people next to you. Just get up and walk forward!

On other airplanes, such as 747s, what may sound like a terrible seat isn’t. A middle seat on the right or left side of the jumbo jet would appear to be the worst seat on the plane. Not necessarily. You’ll notice on the seating charts that the plane tapers toward the rear, so the last two or three rows on either side of the plane aren’t three seats across, but two. That center seat suddenly has a lot of extra room on either the right or left side. It makes a big difference.

Some airlines are now auctioning preferred seats. They will make available—of course only at the last minute—first, business, and even preferred coach seats. Travelers make minimum bids. For business travelers, it can be a great deal. A seat that might retail for $3,000 can go for as little as $380 (on international routes).

You need to check with your individual airline to see how you can get notified of these auctions (they will almost always alert you online once you register). A few airlines are even allowing some passengers to pay a premium to make sure the middle seat next to them is empty.

Under the category that necessity is the mother of invention, there’s now an app on the market designed to create an entire last-minute industry to avoid the middle seat. It’s called Seateroo.

You register for the app in advance, at the boarding gate, or once you’re on the plane. If you’re stuck in the middle seat and will do anything to get out of it, someone else on your flight (also on Seateroo) who has a window or aisle seat sets the price, and you switch.

The app just came out, and so far, no airline has stepped in to stop the side industry of passengers paying other passengers, presumably at a price lower than the airline would charge them, to get out of that middle seat.

To see more of Peter Greenberg’s reports for CBS News, check out:

By Peter Greenberg for PeterGreenberg.com

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