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Q & A: How to score a seat in the bulkhead row

Linda Potter looks forward to her annual trip on Continental (now Continental/United) from Houston, Texas, to Sacramento, Calif., to visit her son, her daughter and her three granddaughters.

But the proud grandma has a gripe about securing the right seat for her flight.

“I have MS and getting the bulkhead seat allows me to stretch my legs out a bit and to exercise them a bit during the flight,” said Potter. “In the past, the airline held these seats for those with a medical condition, only releasing them to the general public in the last 24-48 hours before the flight. Now I’m told these seats are no longer held, but sold to those who want more legroom.” 

As she prepares for this year’s trip to California, Potter asks, “Is there anything I can do?”

For advice, Overhead Bin turned to FareCompare.com’s Rick Seaney.

“The days of boarding families and infirm first with preferential seating have pretty much come to an end in domestic aviation,” said Seaney. “Airlines now consider the bulkhead and exit rows as premium seating for elite, loyal travelers.”

But not always. “Now airlines are doubling down by offering these prized seats as an up-sell, even before [giving them to] their elite customers,” said Seaney.

With her occasional trips, Potter isn’t likely to achieve elite status, which is the best way to get first crack at better seating. In lieu of that, Seaney offers these tips:

  • Some airlines make free seat assignments 24 hours before departure. “Go in at 23 hours 59 minutes and 59 seconds to get a shot at those seats.”
  • American, Southwest and many other airlines allow any passenger to cut in line and book premium seats for a fee ($10 to $40).
  • Some airlines offer discount paid seat assignments at the kiosk. “So even if you print your boarding pass at home, check with the kiosk at the airport.”
  • Fly on Tue/Wed/Sat (the lowest volume passenger traffic days), on the first flights out or on flights at lunch or dinner time. “You're more likely to have some empty seats to provide potential comfort,” said Seaney.

Book early, and don’t give up on the airline. On its website, Continental states that “certain seats are made available free of charge to persons with a disability if the request is made at least 24 hours in advance of the scheduled flight.” Airline spokesperson Mary Clark said some of those seats may be in the bulkhead, but confirms that, “Within 24 hours of flight departure, held seats are made available to other customers.”

Also, don’t assume the only seats with a little extra leg room are bulkhead and exit row seats or those in the premium areas that require an extra fee. Seating maps on websites such as SeatGuru.com sometimes reveal one or two seats with bonus legroom toward the back of the plane.

Have a travel-related pet peeve or question you’d like answered? Overhead Bin will track it down. Send us your question.

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Find more by Harriet Baskas on Stuck at The Airport.com and follow her on Twitter.