Why seatmaps are a useful indicator of flight loads

That’s probably not totally true, but hear me out. Common wisdom on FlyerTalk, at least in the United forum, is that seatmaps are in no way an accurate indicator of the actual availability on flights. Some posters take this to an extreme and basically say that the seatmap is irrelevant, while the fare class availability is valuable.

Well, I kind of disagree. Yes, in some cases the seatmap is worthless. This is commonly the case on flights where a lot of tickets are booked as codeshare flights or through consolidators, and seats aren’t assigned until the day before the flight or the day of. For example, Hong Kong to Ho Chi Minh City or Washington Dulles to New York JFK are common routes where the seatmap means nothing. I’ve seen flights zeroed out on IAD-JFK that have only about a dozen people on the seatmap the day before departure, due mainly to the fact that most people booked their tickets with other airlines and didn’t bother selecting seats.

But, let’s look at the other side of it. I’m on a flight tomorrow that’s “C8,” which means that they’re willing to sell eight more business class seats. Great, I stand a good chance at the upgrade, right? Well, probably not. The seatmap reveals that only one seat in business class is unassigned. That means they’re willing to oversell business class by seven (if eight people would in theory pay for it in the next 24 hours, which isn’t happening), because there’s room in first class. Still, that doesn’t really matter for me, since they won’t operationally upgrade passengers from business class to first class, just to make room for upgraders from coach to business, unless coach is oversold.

So, in this case the seatmap is more relevant than the fare class availability, as it often is.

(I apologize to those of you that expected a post about something other than my upgrade tomorrow, or lack thereof) 😉

Filed Under: United
  1. Too bad United doesn’t have inflight WiFi, or you could live-blog from your seat in the last row of coach 🙂

  2. Yeah, Lucky… you seem like of obsessed with these “upgrades” of yours… What’s that all about? 😉

    I agree with your logic, though … though it only seems to apply on Int’l 3 class flights. I can’t think of how seatmaps are more useful on a two-class domestic flight.

    Good luck tomorrow!!

    PS Want to know what’s worse than not getting an upgrade? It’s booking a really cheap ticket in Y for my IAD-LHR flight this week and seeing tons of available space in C … and knowing that there’s not much I can do to get up there. 🙁

  3. Lucky, do you get the “C8” from seatcounter, or some other inventory website? Thanks and good luck tomorrow.

  4. @ Oliver — You’re one cruel dude. 😀

    @ Uniter — Me? Obsessed with upgrades? Nah, you must have the wrong person. 😀

    I agree it’s not that useful on two cabin planes, with the exception of one common scenario. All the time I see someone making a post saying “my flight is basically empty, blah blah blah.” Someone will respond asking how the OP knows, and the OP will respond that the seatmap shows a lot of empty seats. Then a prolific poster comes back and says “No, no, no, the seatmap isn’t an accurate indicator of seat availability.” Well, I think it is for the most part in that case.

    As far as London goes, just be happy your wife is letting you go. 😉

    @ Elliot — I use either seatcounter or “expert mode” on united.com, which works just as well. In your options section of your profile change your status to “expert,” and you’ll see all the seatcounter info when doing a “dummy” award booking.

  5. Even in this situation a full seatmap is not necessarily a good indicator. Some airlines actively block seats beside VIP or high status customers. But if they sell more seats (or upgrades) then the block may or may not be released. Then there is also the rolling op-ups, move some from business into first to make room for some from economy.

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