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I was flying with a group of friends on Emirates and I decided to check in online the exact moment the online check-in is enabled on the website.

To my surprise I found about 10 seats only available to choose from with the rest of the seats marked as already booked. This was an Airbus A380-800 plane with an insane number of seats on board

The weird thing is my friends were shown different seats when they tried to check in, but they were also shown a limited number of seats.

Questions

  1. Do airlines show different seats to different passengers?
  2. Do airlines limit the number of seats shown to passengers during check-in?
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It depends on the airline, but yes, they typically show only a certain selection. Depending on your frequent flyer status, you might see more forward seats, aisle seats, or window seats, whereas if you are a 'nobody' for them, you get mostly middle seats and seats towards the back offered.

The selection changes slowly over the hours, as the plane fills up. You can of course game that, and there is an optimal moment, where they potentially have to show some forward aisle seats (when all others are taken, and no more high-status members are awaited), but it's easy to miss and then you get a middle seat in the back.

You can also call them, and they will typically accomodate the wish to have several people sit together, but again you have little choice on the location then.your best chance might be 'everybody try to grab an aisle seat in the forward part', and then in the plane go and offer switches (as you will have preferred locations to offer, people will switch)

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    This usually explains why some people see more seats than others. Seeing different seats may be just a way to avoid conflicts: the system picks a number of seats and temporarily reserved them, so other people booking at the same time get a different selection and there’s little chance of a « this seat’s ale day been taken » situation. – jcaron May 25 '18 at 23:34

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