Airlines work hard to control the distribution of their product. Most tickets are non-refundable and non-transferable. Airlines requested ID to prove the passenger matched the name on a reservation, but this wasn’t a requirement until President Clinton “want[ed] to announce new airline security measures” when meeting with families of passengers from TWA flight 800.
Still there are numerous markets for the exchange of airline seats, both formal and informal. For instance when airlines overbook a flight they engage in an auction to get passengers to give up their seats and take a later flight. One United passenger got $10,000 to call her denied boarding voluntary.
This is how badly United didn’t want to give me cash: pic.twitter.com/sI7vmbeB2Q
— Allison Preiss (@allisonmpreiss) March 22, 2018
You used to be able to take any open seat in your cabin that you wanted. You could change rows and stretch out in an empty row, or move up to an exit row seat. Now airlines sell those seats for a premium and sometimes police passengers who seek to move around even in coach.
Waited to close door for one late passenger in 24D. He sits self down in 7D. Agrees for @United to upsell him $63. Now he won't pay.
— gary leff (@garyleff) June 3, 2017
Sometimes there’s a flight you have to take and there’s no premium seat available. NFL star Cam Newton offered $1500 to another passenger on a flight leaving Paris just for an extra legroom seat in coach but the offer was declined.
A reader who paid $69 for an extra legroom seat voluntarily gave up his seat so a family could sit together. The family proceeded to sell the seat to another passenger for $100.
What this all points to is that there are both official and unofficial markets in aircraft seating. I’ve considered offering passengers money to change seats with me, for instance when an air marshal bumped me out of the seat next to my wife on the flight home after our honeymoon and several other passengers were unwilling to switch because they were part of a politician’s entourage.
Sometimes you don’t realize just how much you’re willing to pay for a different or more comfortable seat until you get on board and face the prospect of several hours crammed in back. The very fact that preferences change over time is why airlines have worked so hard to continue upselling passengers on better seats from the time they purchase they’re ticket up through check-in.
However we rarely see passenger-to-passenger bidding in action. On a friend’s Facebook page I saw a report this weekend of an attempted trade on a 3.5 hour Delta domestic flight,
[I’m sitting in] 14D in Comfort+, behind jump seat. Dude in 13E is asking flight attendant to offer $500 for someone in 1st class to switch.
It doesn’t appear this worked, and I think I know why. $500 on a domestic midcon flight should be enough, the premium over extra legroom coach to buy first class is usually much less than that, and there’s a good chance that someone up front didn’t pay anything at all. However if flight attendants are going to get into the middle of a transaction, they’re going to need to be afforded a cut.
Already flight attendants rent out their seniority, selling preferred flights they’re able to schedule to work to more junior colleagues. This has been common at American Airlines and also at United. At Emirates there are reports of flight attendants paying schedulers not to have to work very much although the airline denies it.
There’s no question different seats have value, scarcity comes into play on a given flight that ought to lead to passengers exchanging seats for money — an aftermarket in seat assignments. As much as airlines may try to control it and keep the revenue for themselves what’s stopping these markets from developing is the social awkwardness of becoming your own market maker, on a one off basis with strangers. That’s where flight attendants come in.
Already they take advantage of opportunities to earn extra income advertising credit cards inflight to passengers. Taking on the role of intermediary for passengers who want to trade seats for cash seems like a natural place for them to earn further commission.