Some readers are genuinely confused when they check in for a flight and find the entire cabin is full. “But… but… I confirmed my seat assignments two days ago, and it was half empty!” That row you thought you had to yourself on an international flight? Now you’ve got two friends. The business class upgrade you were sure would clear? If you have status, maybe you can at least enjoy the business class lounge before you take your original seat in economy.
You thought the plane was empty, but now it’s full. The reason for this confusion is someone was looking at the seat map. It’s a reasonable thing to do since it is the only obvious information available to the average person. And it’s wrong for one very simple reason: many people don’t select a seat.
They will select a seat when they check in, or a seat may be assigned to them by the gate agent. But for whatever reason they bypass the seat selection process during booking.
- People in first or business class may not care as much. They already have better seats than most people on the plane.
- People in coach may have booked through a third party. (Seat assignments can easily be overlooked or lost in the process, so make sure you reconfirm with the airline.)
- Some airlines charge a fee for seat assignments.
- Some passengers are hoping to get a seat with extra legroom (EconomyPlus, Main Cabin Extra, etc.), but they aren’t eligible. By not selecting a seat they may hope that these premium options are the only ones left.
There can also be passengers who switch flights or who get rebooked after their original flight encountered a delay. Seat maps will start filling up when people check in. This is often 24 hours before departure but can be up to 36 hours if people are checking in for an earlier flight and then connecting to yours.
How You Can Improve Your Estimate
If you’re concerned about how many seats are actually available on your flight, you can get a better sense by looking at the unsold inventory. Paid tools like ExpertFlyer will quickly look up the number of seats available in different fare classes. This example shows a flight from Dallas to Hong Kong that has two seats in business and one seat in economy (some fare classes overlap) — although just a few days ago it was completely sold out.
And notice that the seat map still has many empty seats.
If you don’t want to pay for ExpertFlyer, FlightStats used to provide a similar service but discontinued it. So another free and easy alternative is to simply try booking the same ticket again. Is your original flight available in the search results? Try booking a reservation for four or more people. Still there? Then you know at least four tickets are for sale. In this case we can see American is only selling two tickets in business and one in economy — the same information we found on ExpertFlyer.
Tickets for sale don’t always equal space on the plane. Airlines frequently oversell their flights, expecting some people not to show — and these estimates are kept secret. But published inventory is the best resource we have as consumers.
What if you do get stuck in a row of 10 in the back of the plane? Check out my tips for finding a better seat at the last minute. Sometimes the last few hours before departure is the best opportunity to find that precious aisle seat with an empty middle.