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I'm new to traveling by air (we usually drive). Tomorrow I return home via three different flights with American Airlines, and my third flight doesn't appear to have a seat for me, and it won't allow me to check in and print my boarding pass.

My ticket has a destination with a date and time on it, yet I cannot board the plane. This seems contradictory to me. How can I prevent this in the future and be assured a seat on the plane? (What about the money I spent for it...)

(Clarification: Ideally I'd prefer not upgrading to first-class or any premium/membership things.)

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there is a difference between "do not yet have a piece of paper proving I can board the plane" and"cannot board the plane". I'm sure you will board that plane or the one after it, with little or no drama. –  Kate Gregory Dec 28 '11 at 17:57
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2 Answers

up vote 14 down vote accepted

Go to the airport anyway. Most likely you will end up with a seat. If not, the airline will take care of you and get you to your destination on another flight.

Some possible explanations:

  1. The flight is overbooked. If someone else fails to show up for the flight, you'll have a seat. If not, they will offer incentives (vouchers for future travel) for someone to give up their seat and take a later flight. If nobody does, they will bump someone at random (not necessarily you), give them compensation, and put them on a later flight.

  2. There are seats still available, but they want to save them for special customers (elite-level frequent flyers, etc). Perhaps they are "premium" seats with extra legroom, exit rows, etc. Right now these special customers have seats elsewhere on the plane. Sometime before departure, the airline will upgrade their elite customers into these premium seats, leaving their original seats for you.

So you most likely will get a seat, though you may not have much choice as to which seat.

If you buy your ticket further in advance, when more seats are available, you will have a better chance of being able to confirm your seat assignment.

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Now that all three flights have transpired and I'm sitting here at my destination, I can see better how what you described works. I suppose my best bet is to buy the tickets as early as possible, and always be sure to select seats as soon as it becomes available. –  Matt Dec 28 '11 at 23:24
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Just so you understand:

Airlines are notorious at overbooking their flights

Depending on the type of ticket you are buying you can actually guarantee a seat for yourself by reserving the seat. AA has the following information about it.

However, during the holiday season when ticket prices are generally sky high you will probably have to have a full fare ticket to be guaranteed anything.

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Notorious is a bit unfair. Airlines sell (some) seats that allow changes to be made, even after arriving at the airport, for free. Meetings run late end early. Knowing some fraction of the passengers will not show, they oversell, and it works out that the plane goes out full. If they did not oversell, tickets would cost more because planes would not go out full. Airlines that don't oversell also don't sell no-change-fee tickets. –  Kate Gregory Dec 28 '11 at 17:44
    
@KateGregory I perfectly understand the logistics of overbooking flights and the necessity of doing so on the part of the airlines but it still doesn't help passengers that need to fly and can only pay economy. The business travelers for whom meetings run late or early usually pay full fare and have the change fee already baked into the price anyway. –  Karlson Dec 28 '11 at 17:51
    
Having observed it, it seems a very interesting practice: selling something you don't have. I think our family business would cook the goose if we tried that. Well anyway, this is good to know. Thanks for the link. –  Matt Dec 28 '11 at 23:21
    
@Karlson: Arguably, it does help "passengers that need to fly and can only pay economy": They pay lower fares on the average. –  Nate Eldredge Dec 29 '11 at 5:12
    
I think you are confusing what AA mean when they discuss reserving a seat. They are just allowing you to pre-select your preferred seat when you book your ticket. This is equivalent to selecting it when you check-in. It doesn't guarantee anything; the ticket T&Cs still allow them to declare the plan overbooked and kick you off. That is less likely with a full-fare ticket or FF status, but still not impossible. –  Andrew Ferrier Aug 6 '13 at 20:30
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