When an aisle seat is no longer an aisle seat

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When an aisle seat is no longer an aisle seat

by: Jill Schensul | .
The Record (Hackensack, N.J.) | .
published: April 22, 2016

The gate agent was moving his mouth. But I didn't quite get what he was saying. I mean, I heard the words. They were:

"You don't have an aisle seat, you have a middle seat."

And that put one of us into some alternate reality.

I remember, after booking my flight to Paris going to the seating plan. There was almost nothing available, but there was one aisle seat in row 46. Most of the seats in the middle section of coach were four across, but starting in row 42. I seemed to recall that they jogged in to three abreast, made F the aisle seat. I could see it in my head.

"But, I chose this seat so I wouldn't have to sit in a middle one."

Yet, while unbelievable, my certainty was shifting. A lot of people don't take the blame, the responsibility, or own up to being wrong. But I've often noticed that when something goes south, it in fact turns out to be me who got it turned in that direction.

After all, what did I know from the configuration of airplane seats? Just give me a place to sit where I don't feel like the toothpaste in a tube — just put me by the aisle, so I can see there are vast open spaces just beyond my jammed kneecaps.

Otherwise, I start hyperventilating.

In fact, I was already starting to pant-pant-pant. Middle, middle, middle.

People were boarding the plane for eight hours of packed-in confinement. Eight.

Through my heart beating in my ears, I heard the agent say: "I do have an aisle seat."

I stopped mid-pant.

"But it'll cost you $41," he added, before I could breathe normally. It was going to cost me to park myself in Seat 20J. Apparently, the "20" made it a more attractive and valuable property — at least to a certain variety of passenger. Seat 20J wasn't a comfort-plus seat, one that came with perks. You see, I had done my homework, before choosing 46F lo those many weeks ago. No, it was just the location farther up in the plane, and I dismissed that option as a waste of money.

Now, it seemed, I was going to have to hand over that money anyway — it was no longer a choice, but a necessity.

That middle seat needed avoiding, at all costs.

I forked over the money. I had my aisle, and actually, the man sitting next to me was really interesting, — and, gathering from the conversation he had with his 90-plus-year-old mother before takeoff (sorry, when I heard "otters" I eavesdropped in earnest), he came from an entertaining lot.

In fact, this column was going to be about the unexpected perks of forced sociability.

But as I sat down to write, I remembered how I wound up in 20J in the first — or second — place. And just for kicks, I went back to see where I'd gone wrong. I pulled out my unused boarding pass, bearing the 46F, as in "Failure." And went on the Air France site, to look at the seating chart. I expected proof of "Just how dumb can you be, Jill?" but instead, there was 46F, sitting squarely beside the aisle.

Well, OK, I wasn't crazy, or wrong.

I was, however, out $41. Oh, and now that I'm getting a bit, well, annoyed, I should mention that the tray table, which fell open as I was settling into my fancier seat, was festooned with variously colored encrustations of I-don't-know-what. I'll say no more. I took pictures at the time. Maybe you saw the tweet?

Back to the (identifiable) matter at hand: airplane seats. They are, I realize, a big source of angst, consternation and confusion for travelers — especially by families, and parents with small children, who get divvied up and scattered around like somebody played 52-pickup with the whole deck of reserved seats.

Airlines do make that point — in the fine print — that your economy-class fare guarantees you only a seat, not any particular seat. Not even one you reserved in advance. Not even one you may have paid extra for.

There are very good reasons for last-minute seat reassignments, as the airlines explain it, safety and various special passengers' needs among them. For instance, passengers traveling with service animals get priority for the bulkhead seats; passengers who aren't up to helping out in case of emergency can't sit in an emergency-exit seat. Passengers using wheelchairs may need an aisle seat with a movable armrest so transferring will be obstacle–free.

Getting your seat switched is one kind of surprise. But in the case of 46F, nobody had tried to take my seat away. It had just sort of ... moved.

How that happens, I'm not sure. I'm on the road right now, in England (my second destination, since arriving, ensconced in seat 20J to Charles de Gaulle. So I haven't had time for a full court press, but I've contacted both Delta and Air France, which code-shared my flights. Told them I want my $41 and an explanation.

I asked, for instance, if the seating charts on the airline's site are actually just approximations, and your plane may differ. I understand that there are some flyers who really work hard to get the best seat on the plane, often through the detailed reports on a website like www.seatguru. I don't know, but I think "comfortable coach seat" is an oxymoron and searching for it an exercise in futility.

While I may not be in search of that most comfortable seat, it would be useful to at least know what seats were on the plane to begin with. And where they were.
Well, live, learn, travel, fall into potholes.

One nice surprise did come out of this situation, however. While I was forced to pay extra to extricate myself from a jam, I was, for once, not the maker of that jam. The information provided by the airlines was erroneous — not on purpose, but still, it was wrong.

I heard back from Delta on March 15. Allen M. Smith (no title) responded, apologizing, and so that "your concerns receive the proper attention, I've forwarded your note to our Refunds team. They'll respond to you directly. If a refund is due, it'll be processed as soon as possible." No explanations were forthcoming. I remained optimistic, even though a search for the status of my inquiry/refund turned up nothing but this: "We were unable to locate refund information for the confirmation entered."

I figured this was a big enough error that it would be a no-brainer for the refund department. I was sure a refund would be waiting in my mailbox when I got home. But this morning when I went through the process of finding my refund status, just before press time, it was still unable to locate anything for me. And I'm leaving for home in two days.

So that refund I imagined would be waiting for me back home? There, well, I may have been in error.

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