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American's Express Seats: How Not to Introduce New Fees to Customers

Last week, American Airlines (AMR) joined the rest of the airline world by adding an option to pay for coach seats near the front of the plane. There are plenty of people who are not happy about yet another fee, but this is nothing new. Other airlines have been doing this for awhile. What's more, American announced this in a way that both maximized customer confusion and made it difficult even for folks who want to pay the fee for forward seating to do so.

Whether you love or hate this idea, one thing is clear. Clarity was not in the cards when it came to communicating the change. I can't remember the last minor change like this that caused so much confusion as to what's actually happening.

The basic idea is a familiar one. The coach seats in the very front of any flight operated by American domestically (not including American Eagle) can now be reserved by anyone within 24 hours of departure by paying a fee. It looks like that fee is ranging from $19 to $39 today depending upon the length of the flight. Oh, and the "Express" part of the name comes from the fact that you also get to board in the first group.

So far I'm with them. If there are people crazy enough to pay money just to sit a couple rows closer to the front (there is no more legroom), then more power to American for getting that money from them. But American hasn't actually done a good job of making it easy to get that money.

As mentioned, these can only be reserved within 24 hours of departure when you check-in. One problem. You have to check in at a kiosk to do it. Want to check-in online at home? Too bad, can't do it. Want to use an agent? Nope. So if you want to give American money, they won't help you. You have to use a kiosk.

But that's just one issue. The other is a much larger one and it involves the airline's elite members. Right now, there is "preferred" seating reserved for elites. Nobody else can assign them in advance, so it ensures that the airline's best customers get the best seats. Now there are Express Seats, so will this overlap? The American FAQ was clear as mud on this issue:

Q: Will Express Seats reduce the number of preferred coach cabin seats that are reserved for AAdvantage elite status and oneworld elite status members?

A: No. Because we know AAdvantage elite status and oneworld elite status members prefer aisle and window seats near the front of the cabin when traveling in Economy Class, we set aside a number of these seats on every flight. These seats are designated as "Preferred Seats" on the AA.com seat map. Express Seats are in addition to the Preferred Seats offered to our elite status members.

According to FlyerTalk, it's effectively the prime seats in the first couple rows of coach that will be sold as Express Seats. Aren't those generally similar to the ones that American holds back for its elite members? So what gives?

Well, it's not clear. My calls to American were not returned, so I'm left guessing. What we do know is that nothing is changing more than 24 hours prior to departure. Elites will still be able to reserve the same seats as before and the peons won't be able to touch them. But once we get within 24 hours, that's where I'm stuck.

The FAQ does note that elite members can buy Express Seats if they want. So I take this to mean that the best coach seats, the Express Seats, will not be available to elites unless they want to pay. It's not an issue if you bought your ticket in advance, but the very important last minute traveler ends up in trouble. How does that make sense?

It would have been much easier to simply make elite Preferred Seats available for purchase by regular fliers when they check-in if any are still available. Then allow elites to continue to reserve them for free. Maybe hold back a couple seats for those last minute fliers just in case, if there's a concern. Oh, and then allow the regular fliers to purchase this when they check-in, regardless of medium. Now we've got a program worth discussing.

I still would never buy this product because I don't care if I'm in the 7th row of the 15th row, but if others would pay for it, then this is a good idea. The problem is that American is not making it easy for those people to actually take advantage of the offer. Can we get some clarification here, American?

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Photo via Flickr user X-Ray Delta One
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