I recently flew economy class with British Airways, short haul within Europe if that makes a difference. My booking gave me the ability to either pay to reserve a specific seat or wait until 48 hours before departure when I would be able to reserve a seat for free. Note that other ticket types only allow you to reserve your seat for free 24 hours before departure, so my ticket gave me a small advantage over these other passengers.

Looking at the available seat choices when I booked a few weeks before flying (and at some intermediate times as well) it certainly seems like the paid-for seat choices are not that popular with most seats still being available ~60 hours before departure. However, once I was within my 48-hour window, I was only offered a choice of just four seats. I was left wondering how all those unreserved seats got reserved so quickly, and what choices would remain if my ticket has restricted me to the 24 hour window instead, or I had waiting until I was at the check-in desk. Strangely, pretty much the same thing has happened on other recent flights with the same airline, with a far smaller choice of seats that I might have expected to be available.

What occurs to me is either a hundred or more passengers are eagerly waiting for that 48-hour window to open to 'get in' and reserve their favourite seat, so most the seats are being reserved for free within a few minutes; or British Airways are not actually offering all the currently available seats to those passengers eligible to reserve a seat at that time.

Is information available somewhere that gives details about the online seat reservation strategy adopted by British Airways?

  • 4
    I can't answer the question, but a third option would be that, between paid-reservations and 48h free ones, they allocate things like block bookings. Commented Mar 20, 2018 at 23:31
  • 1
    Maybe lots of seats were sold close to flight date. Just a speculation.
    – user16259
    Commented Mar 21, 2018 at 6:05
  • Also certain seats (i.e. exit rows) they seem to only assign at airport.
    – George Y.
    Commented Mar 22, 2018 at 4:39
  • Whats worse is when you do buy a premium seat, and British Airways doesn't allow you enough time to connect to another flight (because of delays), they will rebook you on a different carrier and you don't get to pick your seat at all.
    – AussieJoe
    Commented Jul 5, 2018 at 20:47
  • @GeorgeY. Not true, but they may be more restricted in advance.
    – Calchas
    Commented Jul 5, 2018 at 21:49

2 Answers 2


I was left wondering how all those unreserved seats got reserved so quickly

British Airways uses a tool called "Theoretical Seating" which automatically starts blocking seats 72 hours before departure. The seats are not allocated at this time, but your view of the seat map will be different depending on your value as a customer to British Airways.

British Airways are not actually offering all the currently available seats to those passengers eligible to reserve a seat at that time.

Correct. If you are a British Airways Gold (or Premier) Executive Club member flying multiple times per month, typically on last minute full flex fares, you will still have an open choice of seats (except those which are actually allocated). If you are an infrequent customer purchasing the lowest possible ticket many months in advance, it is likely your seat choice will be restricted to a few middle seats near the back.

The purpose is, the most valuable passengers (i.e., repeat customers who are paying the highest fares) often purchase their tickets only a few hours before departure. The airline wants to offer them a good choice of seats.

The public seat map doesn't distinguish between blocked seats (which are empty but not available), broken seats, and actually allocated seats. (This is true in general for every airline, but I think only a handful of airlines are using Theoretical Seating.)

For a person willing to pay for seats, the airline is happy to give them a wider choice. The airline also proactively blocks seats besides Gold and Silver customers to give them more space, if capacity allows.

We can use a tool like ExpertFlyer to get a better picture of what the seats of a particular flight look like.

Here is the first flight of the day to Amsterdam tomorrow. - indicates a taken seat, whereas X indicates a blocked seat. This actually is a busy flight.

Departing LHR on 06/07/18 for AMS
Flying BA flight 428 in Economy

    A   B       D   E   F       J   K   
12  W   -   -       -   X   -       -   -   W   
13  W   -   -       -   X   -       X   -   W   
14  W   -   -       -   -   -       -   -   W   
15  W   -   -       -   -   -       -   -   W   
16  W   -   -       -   X   -       X   -   W   
17  W   X   -       -   X   -       -   -   W   
18  W   -   X       -   -   -       -   -   W   
        A   B       D   E   F       J   K   

        A   B       D   E   F       J   K   
19  W   -   -       -   -   -       -   -   W   
20  W   -   -       -   -   X       -   -   W   
21  W   -   -       X   -   -       -   -   W   
22  W   -   X       -   -   -       -   -   W   
23  W   -   -       -   -   -       -   -   W   
24      -   -       X   X   X       -   -       
25      -   -       -   -   X       -   -       
26      -   -       -   -   -       -   -       
        A   B       D   E   F       J   K   

        A   B       D   E   F       J   K   
27  E   -   -       -   -   -       -   -   E   
28      -   -       X   X   -       -   -       
29      -   -       -   -   -       -   -       
30      -   -       -   -   -       -   -       
31      -   -       -   -   -       -   -       
32      -   X       H   -   H       X   -       
33      -   -       -   -   H       X   -       
34      -   -       -   -   H       -   -       
35      -   -       X   X   X       X   X       
36      -   -       H   -   -       -   -       
37      +   -       -   +   -       -   -       
38      -   -       -   X   X       -   -       
39      -   X       H   -   -                   
40                  -   -   -       L   L       
41  E               -   -   -               E   
        A   B       D   E   F       J   K   

Premium Only             P                        
Available                +                        
Handicap-Accessible      H                        
Paid & Premium           #                        
Occupied                 -                        
Blocked                  X                        
Lavatory                 L                        
Paid                     $                        

Exit Row                 E                        
Wing                     W                        
Upper Deck               U       

It is also true that certain business heavy shorthaul flights don't tend to sell many seats until about 72 hours before departure.

  • Thanks for the informative answer. I suspected such was true, but the BA staff I have asked seemed unable (or unwilling) to provide this kind of detail. It probably doesn't bother me so much on a short haul flight, but in the light of this answer I might consider paying in advance for a better seat next time I fly long haul.
    – Nick
    Commented Jul 6, 2018 at 11:40

...or British Airways are not actually offering all the currently available seats to those passengers eligible to reserve a seat at that time.

I suspect this to be the case. They will reserve some of the premium seats to sell at the counter or to offer to premium customers.

They don't always fill those premium seats. I am unsure about British Airways policy, but sometimes you are allowed to move to open seats after taking off. You simply ask the flight attendant to change seats (if the seat is available). I think(?) for international flights, you have strict assigned seating but on domestic flights, you can take open seats after take off. My experience is that British Airways isn't always very helpful.

Some European flights (non British Airways, like Air France) aren't worth the seat upgrades at all because the planes can be very empty and flights are so short.

I know I was on an Air France flight and some Russian boxers were allowed to move to premium economy seats, for free. I was a little shocked, as I wanted those seats and had been traveling over 24 hours longer than those guys.

It seems it's up to the staff on the plane to make the decisions, but British Airways is rather strict and may not allow it at all. They seem to be very focused on turning a profit, and not really offering us their best.

  • 1
    The seats are not exactly "reserved" but which seats exactly appear available to you depends on your value as a customer to BA. Passenger 1 might see 5 seats, passenger 2 might see 7 seats, passenger 3 might see 50 seats. No difference between international and domestic flights, they are treated the same.
    – Calchas
    Commented Jul 5, 2018 at 22:33
  • 1
    @Calchas I say "reserved", you say "proactively blocked". To a consumer, it's unavailable, whatever you call it.
    – AussieJoe
    Commented Jul 5, 2018 at 22:46
  • @Calchas that's not true abut domestic and international flights being treated the same for seating. My point was, if you're domestic, you have a greater chance of moving to a premium seat if it is empty, as whereas on an international flight, you have zero chance of moving seats (once you've boarded and seated).
    – AussieJoe
    Commented Jul 5, 2018 at 22:47
  • 1
    When I say "Reserved" and "Blocked", I am using the formal technical jargon that the airlines use, not the English meaning of the words. Reserved = allocated to a specific passenger; blocked = not available for selection. Sorry for my non-clarity. On BA, you will not be allowed to move to the Club Europe cabin whether on a domestic flight or an international flight. But in either case, the cabin crew will probably allow you to relocate yourself to a different seat in the same cabin after take off. There's no difference in policy whether you are flying London to Edinburgh or London to Paris.
    – Calchas
    Commented Jul 7, 2018 at 10:30

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