Preferred Seating Fees are a Problem


I’m a big proponent of the a la carte model, because it doesn’t force people to buy a bundle that includes things they don’t want or need.  Because of that, you might think that I’d be a fan of preferred seats, the practice of charging for seat assignments that might be in a better location on the aircraft but otherwise are no different than other standard seats. You would be wrong.  I find preferred seating charges to be an frustratingly-excellent example of just how poorly the legacy airlines have implemented this a la carte strategy.

ULCCs Do It Right

When I look at Spirit or any other ultra low cost carrier (ULCC), I find the model to be pretty clean.  There is a base fare, and then you pay for what you want.  If you want a bag, you pay for it.  If you want a seat assignment in advance, you pay for that too.  Alternatively, Spirit will offer you bundles with some of the more common combos to make things easier, but if you build your own, then it’s very straightforward.  On a random flight from LA to Baltimore in a couple weeks, for example, here’s what I see when it comes to seat assignments:

Of course the Big Front Seat costs a fair bit more because it’s a substantially different product.  Exit rows get a premium as well for the additional legroom.  But all the yellow seats are the same.  I don’t understand why people would pay much more to sit closer to the front, but you have the choice.  And of course, you could opt to pay nothing and get a random seat for free at the time of check-in.  That’s a model that I understand, unlike the half-assed implementation offered by the legacies.

Legacy Airlines and Their Inconsistencies

For the last decade, legacy airlines have tried in fits and starts to back away from the old model where one fare got you everything whether you wanted it or not.  You would think this unbundling would have resulted in the airlines having something that looked similar to what Spirit has on offer, but instead we’re stuck with a system that has been cobbled together haphazardly without any regard for the customer.

Think about what happens if I want to buy a ticket on a legacy airline.  Can I just buy a cheap ticket and then add on a seat?  In most cases, no I can’t.

At the bottom, there is a Basic Economy fare which generally prevents you from getting a seat assignment in advance.  Some airlines have softened that a bit by offering paid options, but the Basic Economy fare is meant to be punitive; it’s supposed to deter you from buying it.  If you are successfully deterred and buy up to the regular coach fare — which is effectively a bundle with the most popular items included — then you get a seat assignment.  That’s one of the key selling points for customers to bother paying more.

Unfortunately, the idea of paying more to get more ends up being a false premise all too often.  If you’re booking even remotely close to departure time, then guess what?  There’s very little chance you’re going to get a seat at all.  Look at this seat map on American’s daily A330-200 from LA to Philly more than a couple weeks before departure.

Even more than two weeks out, all you can do is get a middle seat unless you want to pay more.  Those reddish/orange seats are Main Cabin Extra, and those should cost more since you get more.  But the green seats are all just “preferred” seating.  American never allows you to reserve those for free, even at the very back of the airplane.  (I cut this map off because there was nothing available at all behind row 30.)

This looks like a relatively full flight, but it’s not.  Those seats marked with an “X” appear to be taken, but that’s not true.  American blocks a ton of seats for elite members only, and those show up as an “X” here.

I looked and there are 33 seats here that aren’t available to anyone but elites.  Those are prime seats, pretty much every aisle in the center section back through row 31.  In other words, there are no windows and maybe 10 aisles in the center section at the far back that you can get included in your fare if you’re a regular traveler.

How This Should Work

This makes me mad.  One of the touted benefits of buying a regular economy ticket is that you get seat assignments included.  But you don’t.  I mean, sure, you can get yourself a couple middle seats, but you’re probably better off just saving money and buying Basic Economy.  Let them randomly seat you in whatever is left at the time of check-in.  It couldn’t be much worse.

The airlines backed themselves into this place by failing to think about the longer-term ramifications of every move they make.   Preferred seating may have made more sense in a world without Basic Economy.  Then there was no push to upsell you, so charging more for seats made more sense.  But Basic Economy is the bargain-hunter fare.  If you’re willing to pay more for a fare that includes a seat assignment, then you should be able to actually get that seat assignment.  This is a bait-and-switch.

The end result is that the people who bought the upsell get the shaft frequently.  It’s not a good way to run a business.  So how should this work?  It’s simple.  Let people with Basic Economy tickets pay (a lot) extra for seat assignments, but for those in regular Economy, there should only be a fee for exit rows/extra legroom seats.  Everything else should be included.

I’m sure we won’t see that happen.  In fact, we’re seeing the opposite.  United has said it would start offering preferred seating soon.  United’s President Scott Kirby says that it’s like buying a concert ticket where you pay more to sit closer to the stage.  Unless the pilots are going to open that door and play some guitar, then this is an absurd comparison.  This is a money grab, and it’s one that angers those people who are actually doing what the airline wants and buying up to a higher fare.  This is not how the model should work.

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77 comments on “Preferred Seating Fees are a Problem

  1. Also the price they charge is absurd. $73 for a transcon in MCE, with couple inches more space and a drink. For a family of 4, that is near $300 already, for one segment! Spirit charge $77 for that bug seat in front, at least that is indeed much bigger seat.

  2. The creation of Basic Economy is the main reason I switched from Delta to Southwest when possible. You get the low Get Away fare without dealing with a deck that is stacked against you.

  3. Random seating might work for single travelers, but as a family with 3 children it’s important for us to sit together. We recently bought a flight for the holidays (more than 4 months in advance), a domestic transon on a 737 on American, and all the aisles were blocked, so we ended up in 3 rows behind each other at the back (window-middle, another window-middle, and a window). While we do like windows, we would have preferred to all sit in the same row.

    I’m still hoping to change seats closer to flight time; I’ve been checking occasionally but nothing has opened so far. Any idea when they open seating to the masses?

    1. They dont. Those are all elite seats. Especially on the longer flights, pretty much all the aisles behind the exit row are elites, unless you want to do MCE or Preferred, you are probably out of luck.

    2. Following up on the same flight: it’s LAX–Washington Dulles. At the time of booking there were also LAX–Washington National flights available for the same price, with lots of free seats available for selection. For our trip National is actually a better airport, but we chose the Dulles flight because the timing was better. Which goes to show you that seat selection is not very high on our priorities :-)

      Any idea why flights vary so much in how many seats are being blocked? If anything, I would have guessed that National has more American elites, so I’m surprised that the Dulles flight is blocked much more aggressively.

      1. Ron – That is interesting. I just picked a random date at the holidays and sure enough DCA is only blocked back through row 20 in the aisle/windows while Dulles is back to row 26 on the aisles and row 22 on the windows. I agree that I would have expected to see it be more restrictive on DCA. Then again DCA is a MAX, so maybe they’re treating that airplane different for now. I don’t know.

        1. American has two daily LAX—DCA flights: a morning flight on a MAX and an afternoon flight on an A321. Both have wide open seats during the holidays, while IAD (737-800) is mostly blocked.

    3. Ron – Nothing will open up until you’re within the check-in window. (I mean, regular seats can open up if people switch off the flight or something, but the elite seats won’t open.)

  4. I think the main reason why some people prefer (or airlines think they prefer) regular seats closer to the nose of the plane is that they can get off the plane quicker. I wouldn’t pay $11 for that privilege, and I wouldn’t book a connection that depends on that time difference if I could at all avoid it.

    I think the main point of this post is an excellent one. A seat assignment included in the regular economy fare is worthless if it is guaranteed to be a shitty middle seat.

  5. Hear me out for a crazy idea…rank order seating. No one gets an advanced seat assignment. But everyone can either have on file or fill out for the flight a rank order preference. You don’t even have to go as granular as 15C, 15D, 16C, 16D, etc, but forward, middle, rear, exit row, aisle/window. Possible even coding in the seat preference plus seated next to person on record ABC123. You could even hypothetically code in the disability seating…it would require a call to the airline, but it already does. Then airlines could also have the rank go by elite status, fare class, corporate rates, partner elites, credit cards, and a buy-up option, where you pay $X to bump your rankings.

    Then at the 48 or 24 hour mark the computer goes in and assigns seats based on your rank order. It would help Elite members always get their preference, also it will help those buying last minute expensive tickets from a last row middle seat.

    It could even hypothetically help families sit together, as often there are enough seats available but they aren’t together and require moving 12 different people.

    It’s crazy and likely impossible but it would accomplish what the legacy carriers want without having to have the “cattle call” of WN.

    1. I like your idea, but isn’t it basically similar to how many airlines determine your boarding zone?

      Anecdotally as a passenger, it seems like the allocation of pax to boarding zones is far less about getting the plane loaded as efficiently as possible these days and far more about ensuring that the more valuable pax (elites, full fares, etc) get boarded early enough to avoid having to gate check a carry-on (or almost as bad, put it in a bin 12 rows back from where they are seated).

      Also, how to hotels allocate rooms to travelers? It seems like there is usually, and should be, some manual (by the front desk clerks) rank ordering to ensure that the elites get their “high floor away from elevator” room or whatever is the standing request in their profile, but I wonder how automated that gets.

      1. Many Hilton properties offer the ability to check in online the day before arrival and select their specific room. I suspect a lot of times it’s at the front desk agent’s discretion.

  6. I agree with you, Cranky. Seat selection fees – on American in particular – have basically pushed me away from the airline entirely. In part because the fee is so damn expensive, and they operate a lot of 2-3-2 and 2-4-2 aircraft. The “2’s” – no matter how far back they are – on transatlantic flights are usually $80-$100 per seat. If you’re flying with a partner thats almost $200 extra if you want to sit together in anything but the middle seats of the middle section. My partner and I consider it offensive and we’ve basically abandoned the airline as a result.

    1. I have not booked AA flights I otherwise would have on my last two transatlantic trips for this same reason. On one I took a DL flight that took slightly longer for the same price, on the other I took a UA flight that cost $70 more.

  7. What’s the story with row 16? Why is the left cheaper? It’s closer to the exit…It’s the north side of the plane… I could ask SeatGuru, but AA gives me no reasons

    1. Chreck Seatguru (or Cranky’s text): the right side of the plane is main cabin extra but the left isn’t. Presumably the geometry of the cabin allows more space on the right side.

  8. Right on, Brett. Here’s a column that the airline executives should read and they should follow your advice.

  9. This was one thing I hated about US Airways, I understand paying for legroom, but just for a regular seat? It sad to see it has caught on, I was hoping it would go away.

  10. In other words, using the example above, AA set aside 16% of the main cabin seats as “elite” freebies. Potentially, that’s 33 seats they could have upsold to other passengers. But they must bend over backwards to keep the “elite” flyer happy. Funny thing is, in many markets dominated by one airline (ATL, DFW, CLT, MIA etc.), the “elite” flyer has little if any choice of an alternative airline. So why coddle these passengers so much? What are they going to do? Fly a ULCC? Probably not.
    Need proof? The next time you are in ATL, watch a Delta boarding and pay attention to how many Platinum and Diamond passengers get on the plane. It’s almost half of the passengers and most are riding in the back of the bus… The legacys have created a monster they can’t tame- the “elite” flyer. They have allowed these programs to become over saturated with entitled “elite” members. At this pace, at some point the whole aircraft will need to be reserved for “elites”…

    1. Mongo, I think you’re on to something. I’m a 1K on United. I remember a time when 1K was really something and the airline bent over backwards for you. Now, I’m one of so many that the status offers relatively little, and the airlines know it. They’ve sold so many priority boardings, for example, that Group 1 is a monster.

      To the overall question of seat assignment, we had an incident a number of years ago in which we traveling to the west coast with our two children, ages 7 and 4. I’d been loyal to United for two decades by then but had lost elite status due to a job change. We called United and asked for four seats togther so our children could be with us. United said, “no” and so we called American, who accommodated us very nicely on a 757. I flew American for business for several years because of that one incident.

      A family with young children needs to be together. For the family as well as for any passengers around the children. American’s currently policy is short-sighted and candidly, anti-family.

  11. I mostly fly AA for work and personal because my home airport is DCA. It infuriates me when I’m booking a flight and open the seat map to only see middle seats available. I book my work related travel usually less than 10 days before travel, so this is a problem and I don’t fly enough AA to be an elite. However, precisely because of all those seats that are blocked for elites, I usually find that at the time to check in, they are released and I can either select the seat of my choice without having to pay for preferred seating. Granted this mostly works because I travel by myself and can afford to wait until check in and I also have the AA advantage card so that when I board, I’ll always have room for my carry on. But this practice by AA is truly terrible.

  12. Was bummed to see Scott Kirby is planning on bringing this practice to United. This crap is a big reason I’d shifted a large chunk of my flying from AA to UA. I think the real reason they do it is that people who don’t know better (i.e. my parents) pay for preferred seats because they think the plane is almost full and if they don’t pay up for a preferred set they risk getting bumped.

    1. TOTAL – No, this is the opposite of what was being discussed. In this case, the fare itself is where the bait-and-switch lies. It isn’t the fee.

  13. I encountered this on an Air Canada Europe trip. It’s a work trip for me but my family is coming along, so separate reservations. There policy is no free seat assignments on basic *or standard* fares until check in. They at least have a policy waiving the fee if you’re sitting with a young kid, but only if you’re on the same reservation. No way I’m paying $35 per segment (three segments each way) just to sit with my four year old. So I guess it’s fight for it at check in or be in the situation of having to trade on the plane, which I really dislike.

    1. Some non-American airlines have implemented this better. Pretty much no one gets an advance seat assignment on Air France without paying, but that means there are lots of seats to choose from at check in. My family got to sit in the A380 upper deck economy cabin last time.

    2. I was recently on a Southwest flight where a father and young child boarded late and couldn’t find seats together (not sure if they weren’t aware of family boarding, or if the child was older than the cutoff age). A flight attendant came on the intercom and asked for someone to trade, offering free adult beverages in return. The offer was accepted immediately.

      1. Since Southwest doesn’t provide assigned seats, each passenger on that flight hadn’t paid a separate fee for the individual seat in which he sat. Therefore, I would suspect that, in this example, people would be willing to change seats. When I pay an upcharge for my seat, I don’t change seats with anyone, even if there is free booze offered.

    3. Alex – Now that to me is different, and the same goes for most European airlines. If you buy a regular coach ticket (on Air Canada, it’s called a Tango fare if there’s no seat), then you have to pay for a seat. There is no game where they make you think you’ll get a free seat assignment. You have to pay no matter what.

      1. Wait, if you don’t pay up, do you get to choose a seat upon check-in at least? Or is it an assigned seat you cannot change?

        Because with the legacy airlines over here in Europe you have to pay for early seat selection, but you can still choose from all regular seats upon check-in. So far, I haven’t had the need to actually pay. If I remember to check in early, I get what I want.

        It is, of course, different with the likes of EasyJet. What surprises me with them is if you don’t pay for a seat and get one assigned, there is no way to change it any more. I would have expected them to allow to change it for a fee inversely related to the number of available good seats in the house.

        1. partim – my experience of AC’s Tango fares (domestic) is that you get to choose seats at online check in when it opens.

      2. Cranky, Air Canada no longer uses the Tango branding, actually. The choices are Basic, Standard, Flex, Comfort, and Latitude. (No Comfort on International fares.) But my real objection is that they’ll give us seats together if we’re on the same reservation but not if we’re on different reservations. Normally, I’m not very sympathetic to people who want to trade seats on the plane. But if they won’t give a family of three seats together for no fee, I will be insisting on a trade at check-in, at the gate, and on the plane if necessary. Obviously they hope that I’ll roll over and pay them the $105 to sit together. But they’re causing their front-line employees more effort.

        1. Alex – How funny! The fares all still end in TG, and I completely missed the branding shift. Thanks for correcting that.

          1. They’ve clearly been highly effective in their branding! :/

            I didn’t know about the change either until booking this trip. It looks to me like “Standard” is basically the old “Tango”, which confused me; I assumed that Standard was a step above Tango and would come with things like assigned seats at booking for no fee.

  14. I disagree with Cranky, the nickle and dime model sucks. If ticket taxes were based on the “all in” price instead of the “base fare,” it wouldn’t be as bad. I have cut back on my travel as a result of this nonsense

    1. Now lets see what else they can charge us for. Oxygen — what an idea. A breathable air surcharge. Padding on the seat. Well, we promise transportation. A soft seat is extra. What about pay toilets?

      At what point does this become so absurd to become nonsensical?

      1. Ryanair (and I trust tongue-in-cheek self promotion) have occasionally suggested a use the washroom fee………………….

  15. I have found that once I add in all the extra fees (seat selection and checked baggage) it is often not much more to go ahead and book first class for domestic travel.

  16. If you can see the seat map before you purchase a regular economy ticket, and thus determine whether it is worth paying a premium to lock in one of the unlocked/open seats, I have no problem with charging extra for a seat assignment.

    I understand why airlines want to lock some forward aisle seats for elites and business travelers, even without allowing other pax to “buy up” to those seats (either as add-on fees or as part of regular economy), as otherwise those seats could easily be taken by leisure travelers booking months ahead of time, leaving the elites griping. However, as an extreme example, if an economy pax wanted to pay $300 more to ensure that they get the seat they want, I’d argue that that might be better for the airline.

    I’d suggest that airlines charge different “seat selection” fees (for the same economy seats) based on some combination of fare class or fare paid, elite status, and days to departure, such that non-elite travelers who book cheap tickets months out have to pay exorbitant amounts to get front aisle seats at the time of booking (basically a similar idea to blocking those seats, only with a big price tag instead of by brute force).

    Personally, I travel alone and without kids, so advance seat selection is of almost no value to me (< $20/segment) unless the flight is 4+ hours and/or the pitch and hip room are tight. I've paid $50 or $70 to get a window seat on a ULCC transatlantic flight before, and would do it again (worth the money to be able to get some decent sleep), but even then I chose to add that option a few days before departure, not on booking. Normally I'm happy to let others pay more for the privilege of choosing their seats if that helps keep my fare low.

    1. American does show the seat map well ahead of booking (already on the flight selection page), but without the prices — just available/main cabin extra/preferred/unavailable. I wonder if you see a different map if logged in as an elite (I can’t check because I’m not one).

  17. I don’t understand why this article is phrased as “this is how the legacy airlines do it.” This is the way American does it. I’m not super familiar with United but Delta isn’t like this. Delta DOES have a block of preferred seating which is just the first few rows of coach and the exit row which is reserved for Medallions, but they don’t charge more on a seat by seat basis. Windows and aisles are equally available for free on a Main Cabin ticket.

  18. the funniest thing of all this is that if you can get a rough sense of the flight load inferred via fare bucket numbers (a VERY coarse estimate obviously), you can strategically check in slightly later and wait for better seats (but not late enough you risk INVOL)

  19. I’ll roll the dice….even if it means I end up in a middle seat, last row. On principle I am NOT letting an airline control my life over a seat assignment or not, overhead bin space be damned as well. It’s like playing musical chairs – almost impossible odds to “win” a decent seat. It’s like chasing one’s tail. Like somebody said this could add $300 one way for a family of four ??? Are they kidding ??,…pretty soon you’ll have to be in a minimum $250,00 a year annual salary bracket to fly without seat assignment angst on any airline. Just wait it out, chances are better that economy plus seats will be the only thing left at the gate. If I’m going to have aggravation it might as well be up to and including the time of boarding. I’m not paying money to sit in a bad seat, you (UA, AA, DL etc) can give it to me for free !!

  20. “Unless the pilots are going to open that door and play some guitar, then this is an absurd comparison.”

    Don’t give Southwest any ideas.

  21. On BA ( LCY-DUB ) last week I purchased a 1 way FIRST CLASS ( Club Europe ) ticket ( $250 approx. o/w ) then you had to pay another $30 to get a seat unless you waited til check in 24 hours before departure where then the seat choice was free …… thats a crazy…. they don’t tell you this until you purchase the ticket then attempt to pick a seat ….. then the seat you get is a avg. economy seat with a avg. premium meal just in the first 3 rows ….. rip-off alert. I’ll skip BA on my Dec trip I have planned and use the $15,000 on another airline ….

    1. “Club Europe” is an economy seat with the middle seat blocked off, that’s how BA describes it on their website.

  22. My problem with airline pricing is that there can be 3 separate economy base fares–economy-basic, economy, and economy-flexible. Why 3 base fares? You don’t need 3 bases, just one, even though it can change every milli-second. Tell consumers they can, as with UA and its Basic,pay $25 less and forego assigned seats, miles, a full-sized carry-on, and the ability to have your group sit together, or pay $200 more for the right to change the flight at any time. Using the term a la carte is way to say one thing and charge something else.

  23. I’ve been on plenty of flights where I was dividing a family by sitting in my aisle seat. My status, albeit low status, at least gives me my preferred aisle seat almost every time and I’m not about to acquiesce and take a middle seat on my own accord. My only complaint is that a lot of leisure travelers do try to go the cheap route by not buying into assigned seats and then think they can bully other passengers into being “nice” and voluntarily moving seats. While I’m personally not a fan of the a la carte model passengers, even leisure passengers should get it and understand the true cost of travel. Problem is those fees are a tough pill to swallow on multiple seats when you have a limited travel budget. Not sure what airlines can do because they want to show the cheapest possible fare up front to get the sale. Maybe they need a giant flashing warning saying “Your family will not get to sit together.” Or maybe the collective needs to grow up and recognize $200 trips to Orlando are an aberration and the true cost of air travel is higher.

  24. Do you think that legacies do it this way due to a lack of analysis or attention to the process, or because of different objectives from the ULCCs?

    1. Tony – My guess is that it’s just the legacies looking at this as a continued evolution, so they keep piling on individual changes that seem good in a vacuum but don’t necessarily make rational sense in a long term strategy. It’s a narrow focus instead of thinking big picture, but it also seems safer to them.

  25. Okay, so I chuckled when I read this line: “Unless the pilots are going to open that door and play some guitar, then this is an absurd comparison.”
    But then I saw an article in an FAA publication about a guy who was recently awarded a Master Mechanic certificate, which recognizes certified mechanics who remain active in aviation for at least 50 years. Mike Gray says, ““I used to be what you called a ‘Flight Mac’ [or] flight mechanic, and I always carried a guitar on the airplane. Some of the flight crew brought their instruments too,” Gray added, describing jam sessions that took place on the 14 to 16 hour flights to Vietnam aboard the C-5 planes.”
    So, Cranky, it could happen! :-)

  26. Since congress seems to be actively looking to protect customers from airline’s avarice-how about instilling a rule where if a customer pays in advance for a seat, and a flight consists of say, more then 1/3 empty seats-that fee must be returned to the customer?

    1. Do insurance payments revert to the individual/company when an auto does not crash, an individual does not get sick, a house does not burn down….

  27. I really like that on a plane with 2-4-2 seating my wife and I can pay extra to get a window aisle seat combo. E seats are about 17″ wide and my shoulders are 23″ wide. On top of that I am an older guy with some shoulder injuries. Most men who don’t know each other aren’t happy snuggling up against each other in the E section. So, if my wife and I can get the window/aisle combo we don’t have to worry about that big guy or gal slopping into my seat or hers, given that my shoulders already slop over the borders of my seat.

    When we fly to Hawaii from the West Coast we fly Hawaiian economy if we can get the extra legroom, window/aisle combo. If we can’t we fly First on some other airline. (Hawaiian’s first is more expensive because they have lie flat seats on many of their runs between the West Coast and HI.)

  28. Does anyone really care what that clown Scott Kirby says? As a long tie Premier 1K, after seeing what they are doing to 1Ks now, I am finally ready to stop being a 1K and move my business and personal to however serves me best. United’s program is consistently in the bottom of every list over the last few years anyway so its win-win. Screw you Kirby and De-nada Oscar.

  29. … try buying a cheap KDEN-KABQ-KDEN round trip ticket from London – not a hope – and what’s all this about NO ACCESS TO THE OVER HEAD BIN … ? … what a farce …

  30. I’m glad you’re shining some light on this issue, Cranky. I like to maintain some sort of elite status on AA mainly to avoid the “seat assignment issue” — which is a real PITA if you fly the airline with any regularity (you just need to be a silver elite to avoid the hassle of no available free seat assignments).

    Obviously, the way this stupid practice developed was that airlines figured out that people will pay for “better” seat assignments. So if you make all the free seat-assignments terrible, you make more money selling seat assignments! It’s a terrible way of doing business, however.

    Personally, if I can’t get a reasonable, free seat assignment, I just roll the dice and get my assignment at check-in. It’s annoying, but it usually works out fine. There’s no way I’m contributing a nickel in profitability for this nonsense.

  31. As at least one person noted, the big losers here are families (or groups travelling together, having a kid young enough where you want an adult within arm’s reach in particular).

    The AA flight you showed is a little less than half full (I count 140 seats in economy, of which 53 are “available” for free/purchase, and 33 are for elites), but there is NO way for a family of 3 to sit together without paying – and even if you’re OK with having one person across an aisle, one of those seats is going to be at least $73, which isn’t cheap (particularly considering this is a transcon flight, not a trip from Texas to Europe or something).

    It’s also crazy that a flight with 86 available economy seats only has 6 available without up-selling.

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