On a July flight from Dallas to San Francisco on American, a recent search showed only 28 of 144 coach seats available for passengers unwilling to pay extra. Of those, 21 were middle seats. There were five spots where a couple could sit together; groups of three or more were out of luck.
It was dramatically different for elite frequent fliers. They could pick from 75 seats including nine rows with four or more seats together.
Another flight — New York to Los Angeles on Delta — offered its most loyal fliers almost twice as many seats for free: 111 versus 60.
Booking through sites such as Expedia, Orbitz and Travelocity can add complications. If somebody inadvertently selects an elite seat or one requiring a fee, airline reservation systems won't hold a seat for him. Passengers should confirm selections with the airline.
For those unable to find two or more adjacent seats, new seat assignments can be snagged for free starting five days before departure as some elite fliers are upgraded to first class. Another block of seats is released 24 hours in advance when online check-in starts. Finally, gate agents can sometimes put families in seats set aside for disabled passengers or ask others to move.
If a young child is separated from his or her parent, "we just have to get it done" says Frontier spokeswoman Lindsey Carpenter. "Usually, people are pretty accommodating."
If all else fails, see if nearby passengers are willing to switch. There might actually be some chivalry left on planes. If not, offer to buy them a drink.
Scott Mayerowitz can be reached at http://twitter.com/GlobeTrotScott.
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