The sight of people being confused about which seat they're meant to be in on a plane is incredibly common. But what do you do if you've got the same seat on your boarding pass as somebody else?
Plane picture from Shutterstock
Every once in a while when I fly, I'll take my seat only to have a passenger approach me and inform me I'm sitting in "their" seat. 95 per cent of the time they have misread the seat allocations during the hustle and bustle of boarding.
It's usually only a small fuss, unless they've boarded quite late and suddenly realise that they're looking at the wrong seat and that their carry on luggage might have to go somewhere else on the plane. I tend to board as early as I can on flights for precisely that reason.
Triple bookings: how not to allocate airline seats
Recently on a Jetstar flight from Sydney to Perth with my family, I hit a wrinkle I'd not experienced previously. There were five of us, which is always an interesting proposition, because very few plane layouts allow for 3-2 style seating, and as much as I love my kids, I readily agree that they won't be everyone's cup of tea to sit next to on a late night flight. This was Jetstar's last flight out of Sydney for the night, landing in Perth just after 11pm thanks to the two hour time difference.
We were seated in Row 19, seats A-C and D-E, with F being the "empty" seat that we figured would be filled with one random flyer or another. We sat down, waited, and in due course, someone turned up at the row and we directed them to the only available seat (the window) figuring it was the only "spare" seat going.
About five minutes later, another passenger appeared and stated that he thought I was sitting in his seat. I grabbed my ticket to show him his error.
Only he wasn't wrong. We both had been allocated Seat 19D, and both had boarding passes that had been scanned to this effect. What's more, the passenger behind him had 19E, which was currently being occupied by my teenage daughter.
This wasn't great, so we called the cabin staff, but being in the process of loading up the plane, it was hard for them to reach us. By the time they did, three more passengers had turned up with boarding passes for seats 19A-C, just to make things even trickier. To further complicate matters, the passenger in F was, it turns out, also in 19E, and another passenger had arrived with a boarding pass for 19F.
Jetstar had, in other words, failed rather calamitously in actually having a seat checking algorithm that didn't allow for people sitting in each other's laps, and in at least one case, with a triple booking to boot. Thankfully, the majority of double-booked passengers were in decent spirits around this, figuring that it was Jetstar's problem to solve.
That has to be the first and most primary tip in this situation. The problem hasn't been caused by you, and while it's stressful, getting belligerent is unlikely to help your cause. I've been on flights where someone's either sat in my seat or tried to do so by error and become angry — in one case, shouting and spitting — and it doesn't end well for the shouter in any case. Airlines can and will remove unruly passengers if you give them reason to do so.
My worry in this case was that, as it was the last flight out of Sydney, what would happen if the plane was full? Thankfully that didn't happen, although I wasn't entirely thrilled when the staff elected to shift my entire already seated family in favour of five people travelling individually. It would have been hard for them to remove us, not because I'm an air rage passenger, but simply because we had checked bags they'd have to remove from the plane as well.
I chalked that up to the joys of budget airlines, with a mental note to look into what the exact rules were in cases where through airline error it wasn't possible to fly at all.
Perth was, by the way, an awesome city, and a great time was had by all.
Airline terms and conditions
In my case alternate seats were available, but what's the practical recourse if the plane had been full and they had bumped us from the flight?
Jetstar's Conditions Of Carriage are rather blunt on this matter:
We can change your seat at any time, even after you have boarded the aircraft, including for safety, security or operational reasons.
Further down, it elaborates on what it will and won't do in instances where you're delayed:
Where a delay or cancellation is caused by circumstances beyond our control, whether you have checked in or not, Jetstar will try to assist you to get to your destination, but will not be responsible for paying any costs or expenses you may incur as a result of the delay or cancellation, unless otherwise required by law.
There are clauses in there for "downgrade" of fares — so if you'd paid one of their infamous extra charges for seat allocation, for example, you could reasonably claim that back from Jetstar.
There are similar clauses for other Australian domestic airlines, although the levels of compensation vary. Qantas states that:
If, due to circumstances within our control, after you buy your Ticket we make a significant change to the scheduled departure time of your flight or the flight is cancelled, we will:
- rebook you on the next available flight (or combination of flights) on our services to your booked destination at no additional cost to you
- alternatively, at your option, refund the applicable fare
- if you choose to continue travel and the change or cancellation occurs on the day of scheduled travel, resulting in your delay at the departure airport, provide you with meal or refreshment vouchers (or reimburse you for the reasonable costs of meals or refreshments if we do not provide vouchers)
- if your travel with us is delayed overnight and you have already commenced travel on your booking (ie you are at an 'away' port), use reasonable endeavours to assist you to find overnight accommodation or reimburse your reasonable accommodation costs if we have not provided accommodation.
Virgin Australia has the almost exact same wording as Jetstar when it comes to seat shifting ("We may change your seat at any time, even after you have boarded the aircraft for any reason, including for safety or operational reasons.") and like Jetstar, states no specific liability for any additional losses in the case of you not being able to be on a flight:
We may need to cancel or delay and reschedule flights or services due to industrial action, landing restrictions, airport loading restrictions, unsuitable weather conditions, technical problems, operational reasons, or any event beyond our reasonable control, and scheduled flight times or destinations are not guaranteed. Subject to the consumer guarantees referred to in paragraph 2.4 and to the extent permitted by any applicable Laws, we are not liable for any Loss which you may incur as a result of any such delayed or rescheduled flight or service.
The paragraph references is rather boilerplate stuff relating to Australian consumer law, but they do highlight your other option in the case that an airline is unable to transport you due to no error on your part.
They're still obliged to offer service or refund at your discretion, not their own. Obviously in the case of a flight that's departing you can't catch the same flight, but a separate flight, or full refund should apply in those cases.
Any Lifehacker readers had any double booking inflight experiences, or tips for this kind of situation? Share them below!
Lifehacker Australia contributor Alex Kidman rarely sleeps on planes, even when he can get a seat. The Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears regularly on Lifehacker.