Airlines have an overabundance of seat choices these days and reservation systems can't handle all of them. Be sure you know what a category means before you click to buy.
Q: My husband and I used Orbitz to buy business-class tickets on SAS from Dublin to Copenhagen. When we got on the SAS flight, we found there were only coach seats. To make matters worse, I was sandwiched between two people in SAS Plus, where the middle seat is supposed to be left empty. We paid $825 each for the tickets. Coach seats at the time were $250 to $300. We can't quite figure out whether Orbitz or SAS is the culprit, but neither will take responsibility. Orbitz offered one $50 future voucher as a goodwill gesture. Can you help us get at least a partial refund toward the difference in cost? --Mary P., The Woodlands, TX
A:With the proliferation of seating categories on different airlines it has become difficult for online travel agencies to capture them all. What was once just coach, business, and first has ballooned to include the following, which is not comprehensive:
"Basic Economy, Go Light, Deluxe Leather, Standard, Go, Economy, Main Cabin, Coach, Economy Plus, Go Preferred, Economy Preferred, Main Cabin Preferred, Main Cabin Select, Main Cabin Extra, Big Front, Stretch, Even More Space, Comfort, Extra Comfort, Premium Economy, Economy Skycouch, Business, Business Premier, Mint, Business First, First, Global First, One, Private Suite."
For some clarity about how agencies handle the choices, I contacted Orbitz on Mary's behalf. It informed me that when submitting information to travel sites, airlines use "standard industry language (First Class, Business Class, Premium, and Economy). This is done to avoid hundreds of different naming conventions ... which hopefully reduces confusion to our joint customers." That's true when the category fits the product, but clearly that isn't always the case. Regardless, there isn't much Orbitz could be expected to do for Mary and her husband since SAS submitted its SAS Plus to Orbitz as Business Class.
What about SAS? It acknowledged that it does not offer business class on flights within Europe, but defended its categorization with Orbitz by describing the perks of SAS Plus: "The customer [receives] a re-bookable ticket, prioritized check-in, Fast Track, lounge access, and food and drinks onboard. We don't offer different seating comfort in SAS Plus on our European flights but you are always seated in the front of the cabin. If possible we do try to offer [an unoccupied] middle seat depending on the number of passengers onboard, but we can't guarantee it."
In response to SAS, I asserted that when passengers purchase business-class tickets, one of the main expectations is that they will receive a more comfortable seat--wider and with more legroom. The airline acknowledged that there was some confusion in the past, but believes Mary and her husband received a product that offered the value of the tickets purchased. I don't agree, but SAS was clear that it isn't willing to offer a refund or compensation.
What does this mean for you? To secure the correct type of seat, if you book tickets with an agency, check with the airline before buying to find out what is offered within each category. Or, if you want extensive advice, go to Seat Guru for details about each plane in an airline's fleet. Spirit's economy class, for example, is called Deluxe Leather, and as nice as that sounds, it has the least legroom of any domestic airline, with only 28 inches. JetBlue's economy class, on the other hand, simply called Coach, also has leather seats, but with 34 inches of legroom and a great entertainment system. Discrepancies exist in all of the categories. You may choose to fly the cheapest ticket with the least amount of space, or the most expensive with your own bed and shower, but either way, do a little research and get what you want.
Have a travel question you want answered? Email firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet us @CNTraveler #dearombudsman.
More from Condé Nast Traveler: