I Played American Airlines Seat Roulette And It Came Up Double Zero

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Airlines Blocking Free Seating

Are Airlines Blocking Free Seating? American Airlines Is!

After booking a recent flight for my wife I was left wondering, are airlines blocking free seating?  I can tell you that it looks like American Airlines is! Charging to select seats was a thing the low cost carriers like Spirit and Frontier played with, not the big three.  Low cost carriers lure you in with rock bottom ticket prices and then hit you with fees right and left, including seat selection. With the addition of basic economy the big three (United, Delta, and American Airlines) have gotten down in the muck with the low cost carriers.  Except they are not adding fees to the reduced price tickets they are doing it on the full cost, main cabin fares. It is a distasteful practice.  I wanted to take a second to review my experience and share tools that can help you avoid having to pay, like I did.

American Airlines Says No (Free) Seats For You

Anyone else hear the Seinfeld no soup for you guy’s voice when reading the above header?  Alright moving on :)!

In December I booked a flight for my wife and her friend to go to San Juan.  It was around 6 weeks before her trip so not far out but also not last minute.  I booked them on separate itineraries which affected my decision making on this issue, which I will get into later. I used vouchers from my last American Airlines debacle for one ticket and Citi ThankYou points on the other ticket. The cash price was low so Citi ThankYou points made more sense than American Airlines miles. Even though the cash price was low I always wanna use my points and miles before cash.

After completing the booking I went to select seats and was left staring at this.

Airlines Blocking Free Seating

American Airlines, in their infinite wisdom, had decided that pretty much every seat but a middle seat was “premium”.  An aisle seat in the back of the plane, yup that is premium! You see airlines are no longer designating the front rows of economy or just the exit rows as premium, they are designating pretty much every non middle seat.

The problem was that the only two free seat selections available were two middle seats a few rows apart.  Everything else on the plane, which was a substantial amount, had a price tag on the seat.  This is a terrible, not consumer friendly approach.

Decision Time

Here are the options I see available to anyone facing this situation:

  • You can chose not to select a seat and you will be assigned one upon check in.  It is likely you would get a seat that is better than the current option. We know for sure my wife could not do worse.
    • The issue with this is that they were on separate itineraries so it would be highly unlikely they would be paired together. Even if they were on the same itinerary there is no guarantee they would have been seated together.
  • You can wait till 24 hours out and hope that seats are released.  Some lower tier elites may be upgraded or pick a preferred seat during this window. That could open up some free seat selections.
  • Lastly you could pay the fee to ensure you get the seats you wanted.

I decided to go with option two.  I selected the middle seats and then hoped availability would open up upon checking in.

What Actually Happened

Over the next few months I would check the seating chart every few weeks but nothing ever opened up.  Then 24 hours out I checked her in and this is what I saw:

Airlines Blocking Free Seating

I took my shot and it came up double zero on the roulette wheel.  There were no free selections added.  And the fact that I had already selected the middle seats, instead of not selecting anything, meant that they were destined to 4 hours of misery. And not even next to each other.

So I played the sucker and had to pony up the $45 a seat.  I am ashamed to say I fed the beast and kept this evil practice going.  But in true American Airlines glory they still messed it up!

American Airlines, You Pathetic Thing You

American had won. They pried $90 from my angry, weakened hands.  They told me to pound sand and that is exactly what I did.  I wanted my wife and her friend to have a great trip so I bowed down to them and accepted my fate.  Plus I had some minimum spend left on my American Airlines card so that was a silver lining.

The first flight was fine but when they got to Philadelphia hilarity ensued.  My wife was called to the gate desk and told she never checked in for the San Juan flight.  She pulled out her boarding pass, which I printed the night before.  The agent said well it shows you did not check in and here is your new ticket and seat. Say what?!? We paid your fee to get them seats together and you still jacked that up, oh AA you really are the worst!

The gate agent of course refused to put them together and was rude about it. She said they did not check in so her hands were tied. Even though that was obviously false since she had a thing called a boarding pass in her hand.

Luckily the person sitting next to my wife’s friend was willing to switch seats for them.  Customers doing things American agents are unable to, every single day!

Airlines Blocking Free Seating


I of course could not let this stand.  I sent American Airlines a message about the situation and they responded a day later. They had agreed to refund my fees.  They blamed it on having to manage so many seat assignments every day, seriously.  So I guess that double zero bounced out and landed on a 23 red after all.


Are airlines blocking free seating? You bet they are! If you run into the same situation as me you have a few options.  None of them are especially good but there are options.

I love that American Airlines messed up their money grab and ended up with nothing.  It is a poetic ending to this story.

Have you ever had a similar situation?  Which route did you take and how did it work out?

Mark Ostermann
Mark Ostermann
Mark Ostermann is a father, husband and miles/points fanatic. He left the corporate world after starting a family in order to be a stay at home dad. Mark is constantly looking at ways to save money and stay within budget while also taking awesome vacations with his family. When he isn't caring for his family or taking a weekend trip, Mark is working towards his goal of visiting every Major League Baseball ballpark.

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  1. This again.

    Why do people get upset at seat assignment fees? Do you all not remember that before airlines developed other revenue streams, prices were 5x higher?

    There is a REASON you can now fly coast to coast for 400 dollars….and it’s not because it costs less to operate a flight. It’s because they can lower ticket prices if they offset the loss with other streams: bag fees, seat selection fees, pre-ordered meals etc.

    So stop acting like you are entitled to BOTH a free seat assignment AND selection. Don’t complain that you are not getting what you refuse to pay for in the first place.

    • One I actually paid for the seat and still didn’t get it. And two flying planes has gotten cheaper over the years with improvements in aircraft etc.

  2. I fly American because of nonstops out of Miami… but I don’t like them… and I refuse to pay for a seat, that I already paid for…

    So it’s middle seat… basic economy… I hope they lose money on me… eff em!

  3. My wife and have flown AA Basic economy several times. They have always given us good seats together at check in. I think it’s better to let them assign your seats, but of course that’s different if you didn’t book the seats together. I want to add that I flew out of SNA earlier this month. We were at the airport pretty early. When we checked in the agent said our flight was going to be late, which would have made us miss the connection (and cost AA money to put us up for the night). The agent put us on an earlier flight so we made it just fine. It was very nice of them. I will say that one of the agents refused to change us because he was concerned about management coming down on him. credit to the agents that were brave enough to help us.

  4. So is it better to even pick a garbage seat at all and check in? What’s the best route if you don’t like the free seats nor want to pay fir one in advance?

    • If you are flying solo I think not picking anything and just checking in and seeing what is assigned is the way to go.

      • I disagree. If you are two people you get middle and aisle/window likely but if you are solo you get middle usually

      • I tend to agree about traveling solo. Although hindsight is always 20/20. I’m traveling on AA from ORD to Greenville, SC, in about a week. The seat prices aren’t that bad, like $21, but it’s not necessarily about the money. (sort of, yes and no) I’m traveling solo, I’m flexible, I don’t particularly care where I sit, and in addition the aircraft is an Embraer RJ145 which is a 1/2 configuration. There isn’t any chance of getting a middle seat, and none of the seats are really THAT bad. Some people even say the aisle seats are best on this aircraft from a comfort (as opposed to staring out the window) standpoint. I don’t know. I’ve come to the conclusion that I’ll spin the roulette wheel and take what they give me. I’d say I could end up at the back of the aircraft with no recline, but that seat was actually taken. I mean there are all sorts of variables, here, but I think my situation is pretty low-risk. But I mean $21 probably buys me breakfast at ORD. Or at least a ten-dollar beer and a hot dog. Meh. I haven’t found AA to be so bad in the past, but my expectations are almost tragically low…

  5. Mark,

    This happens to me all the time on American. Very frustrating. When flying solo, I can usually switch to an aisle or window seat 24 hours before flying but not always.

  6. Good story, as PP it’s not an issue for me but it’s still wrong what happened in your case. Just as interesting to me is how they can say someone with a boarding never checked in. Did they provide an answer on that one. Thanks for the reporting.

    • No they did not. I the email response they essentially said we are sorry for the mix up, we try our best but handle so many seating assignments every day there are bound to be errors.

  7. Mark,
    That was terrible… I have gold status on AA but not for long. I’ll be going through the same aggravation.

    Do you recommend NOT selecting a seat then?

    • A lot depends on if you are flying with someone else or not etc. But if there are only seats available not next to each other or only middle seats I wouldn’t select anything and then check at 24 hours out and see what they assigned you. You can then pay for a seat if you want to change it. I think that is the best way to do it if it happens.

  8. American still has seats? I thought they went to “stand up/shut up.” Guess not all the planes have been converted yet. Seriously, what on earth made you think you would get a decent flight or a decent seat? Those things are simply not the goal of American. They don’t care if you get there they only care if you pay to get there. Except for the American pilots who do a great job of flying us safely despite AA management. American ceased to be a transportation company when US Airways took them over. They are just a sales and marketing company.

    • Haha I did dread booking it but I had to use the voucher at some point…so better my wife than me I guess 🙂 (that’s terrible I know lol)

  9. Great customer service has almost went completely by the wayside. I had an experience on United a few years ago where I got into an argument with a phone representative over an issue and I ended up buying my ticket and getting my seat assigned on United. Several weeks went by and I went to the airport and boarded my outbound flight with no problem. Upon returning is when this phone representative had colluded with the gate agent and she refused to give me my boarding pass. It was sitting on the desk printed out and ready to go but the gate agent refused to give the boarding pass. I had to call over a United Manager AND the Police to get them to give me my boarding pass. I barely made the flight. After landing I complained to the United Manager in my returning airport and, after further investigation, I was given a voucher for a future flight. I transferred it to my son and because of the awful experience I have never flown on United again and I will never fly with them. I will pay more if I have to but never on United again.

  10. This despicable business behavior unfortunately doesn’t begin or end with their seat charts
    American and their poison venom is now almost everywhere in their operations and hostile customer practices
    And that’s why my 40k in spending now goes to other competing carriers
    Doug Parker has destroyed American
    I will pay almost any price to avoid American
    and primarily fly Alaska Jet Blue or Southwest and when abroad fly Asian & Middle East carriers to spite him

  11. I do not understand why people continue to fly this crap airline. Really.

    WN looks better all the time, huh?

  12. The 767 is unfortunately AA’s worst for this sort of thing. Only the last 5 rows or so of window/aisle pairs are available for free selection, and those of course go almost immediately. Then most of the middle rows until the first 5 or so are free, so those fill up. The rest are either blocked for elites or “preferred” paid seats. If you have status it is nice in that you get a pretty wide array of seats to pick from up even when you book a last minute flight, since few people want to pay to select a seat, but for non-elites, aka most people, it is a bummer. Their MCE prices on those flights were crazy too. I selected seats in the MCE mini cabin for free at check in, and they were nice, but I wouldn’t pay $100 a seat more for them, they don’t really even have any more space. All kind of a shame because, apart from no power outlets, I find the 767 a comfortable plane. It is being fast tracked for retirement, so this will all be an academic discussion soon enough.

    • Great comment! I do find it funny that they do this more on the 767 vs a smaller jet since there are so many more seats on the plane you would think they would have more free seat selections and not less. I also think they do it on more desired routes vs standard commuter flights. It is a shame really.

  13. Fleecing customers like this is while simultaneously making things as unpleasant as possible for their customers’ is a direct reflection of the shameless leaders of AA. Utterly disgusting.

    • The state of customer service in the airline industry is pretty sad. AA and United lead that pack. Luckily I can easily avoid United, AA is not as easy to avoid for me.

  14. I just flew a cheap ticket IAH – ATL – HNL ($362 round-trip) and paid $20 for a window seat on Very long ATL – HNL segment. I was able to secure it a few days before hand and randomly checked prior to the flight, and found I was able to change to a window seat much further up, within 24 hours of the flight, after I had checked in, for no additional cost. I was pleased with this deal. Currently in Hawaii, about five days before my HNL – ATL flight, I was able to spend $30 to secure a window seat on the overnight long flight HNL – ATL. Given how cheap my basic economy ticket was, I am happy to upgrade a window seat for just the very long flights. Delta does things right! I’m sorry about your AA experience, but glad you were able to get your seat expenses back. Well done!

  15. AA seat maps are routinely just absolute garbage. They show only paid seats as available when in actuality there are plenty available, they are just blocked. You can see them on expert flyer. It’s a complete scam. They tend to magically open up at check-in time. If someone figures out how to to sue them for this I’ll join the class on a heartbeat.

  16. not sure how prevalent this is yet 2 round trip JFk-MIA on miles in Feb was able to pick seats no problem no uncharge. round trip JFK-key west in Nov AA miles no problem either

  17. What method did you use to contact AA? I’m a little confused as to waiting to picking a seat versus picking one and hoping one opens up. Is there a real difference?

    • I contacted them via their comments/complaint section online. If you don’t pick a seat they have to assign you a seat and if there are only revenue seats left you will get placed in one of those. So the theory is you couldn’t do worse but you may do better.

  18. Another of many reasons not to fly American. Delta, Alaska are both better options at this point. Just say no and don’t fly them. They will get the picture.

    • I fly Delta most often. Alaska doesn’t cover my area really so Southwest has to be my backup. Sometimes American is unavoidable unfortunately though.

  19. This is nothing new and has been going on with AA for at least 5 years. They have ramped up the FA training to deny random people ending up in MCE due to the free drinks issues, etc. I think the mistake is to ever select a seat for pay. When faced with an all $$$ seat chart just don’t select and let them put you where they want at least until you check in. If that doesn’t work re-check in at the kiosks and then if still nothing good, then pay for a better seat.
    AA is also extra stupid on this from a different angle. Yesterday I flew a non-stop flight on an A319 which only has 8 business seats. I just lost my lowly Gold status on 1-31-19 but was still on the upgrade list by some miracle. I was 4th on the list but could see it. I had checked and there was one unsold business seat. I would have paid say $100 for the seat but there was no way to do that through check-in or the app, etc. like you’d have with United so it went to the first person on the upgrade list. Nice for him but they missed out on $100 of revenue from me simply because there was no way to buy up. It would have been no different is the business cabin was empty. On this same flight the MCE seats and green perfered seats went out nearly empty. I had an entire row of green level seats near the front to myself as I had reserved it before my Gold expired for free.

    • I have never seen it to this level on a flight before but I don’t fly AA that often. It is surprising they don’t offer upgrade prices for empty seats. I know Delta does a great job with that…I also get offered to buy into first class even on award tickets.

  20. Yes, that how AA awards rolls these days. I booked a 4-segment RT to Mexico and most of the seats were for extra fee. Did not pay for the “extra” – the American seat themselves are very bad in general no matter where you seat. Even Business in most planes are not worth extra miles/money.
    In Mexico AA even charges a tax on a $30 baggage fee!! Such a lame airline it became. I have even needed to ask for a cookie – otherwise only pretzels of no choice.
    Because of this “seat choice” situation I start to like Southwest more – at least you can pick a seat while boarding for no extra pay, or pay $15 to get a priority boarding. And seat are way more comfortable!

    • That is what gets me most is that most of the seats they are charging for are nothing special. I get the exit row seats etc. or maybe even front of the plane. But row 28 aisle seat? What is great about that…doesn’t make sense. Southwest’s seating procedures will look better and better if this keeps up.

    • I started my life in the air on Southwest. I flew Southwest so much that is was uncanny to me what the big deal was about getting on the plane first if you already have a chosen seat. Well, American being my first airline to fly other than Southwest (I have since stuck with American mostly, and even obtained the world elite card), I quickly learned what the draw was.
      It has been a while at this point, but paying for every single extra is unbelievable. I am grateful they give me a free carry on with the card, but that is sort of the problem with not being in one of the early groups; the plane may run out of overhead bin space.
      I have to admit that with what I have learned from the other airlines, I will fly Southwest any opportunity that I am able. My family will even fly into FLL and make the trip across the overseas highway by car to get to Key West.
      I have been an A-list and a companion pass customer for some years. The companion pass has been invaluable and A-list makes things a bit smoother. I say go for it!

  21. This is horrible and annoying. I agree with you American pretty much sucks but I’m still really thankful that I have Platinum for life due to a few million miles of flying earlier on in my career as well as AAdvantage spend when it used to count towards lifetime miles. I’m sure AA will manage to screw that up as well but at least I can still pick premium seats for free and not have to deal with this mess like you went through.

      • I can assure you that status does not make us immune from this insanity. My experience lately has been the same – credit for what is owed and no apology for poor customer experience. That is not how you fix the situation. So, after 24 years – most as EXP & 4MM lifetime miles, I had a qualifying trip cross the new year – they refused to grant an exception. I am off to United – good riddence AA.

        • That is sad that after 24 years they wouldn’t bend the rules a little bit. It is like airlines don’t know the cardinal rule of business. It is always cheaper to keep a customer than get a new one.

  22. You should tweet this article to American. This kind of stupid behavior is what irritates me about American! What if that person did not want to switch seats? You would have paid for a terrible experience

    • It is beyond frustrating and agents are so used to saying no to everything they don’t even try to correct it. Although I have notice Philly has some of the worst AA agents out there so there is that.


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