Air India paid seat selection is a con-job!

I hate it when airlines try to get on the ancillary charges gravy train, trying to stick their hands in our pockets without having the technology to do so. Seat Selection has been paid in India for a few years now, and I do not mind that. Most of the time, I am flying Jet Airways, and as an elite, I get free seat selection. Most other people have to pay at least till 12 hours prior.

On airlines such as IndiGo, SpiceJet, and GoAir, the ways of the world are different. I sometimes pay for seat selection, sometimes for a bundle which includes seat selection and food, and sometimes I am happy to be sitting back on the bus where the free seats are. After all, we are all going in the same direction, right? GoAir had systems which did not allow for seat selection for the longest time, but they seemed to have also fixed this situation recently.

Air India has been giving away seats for free for a very long time now. Last year, they dipped their hand in the pay-for-seat assignment market, where they were selling some of the long-haul extra legroom seats for a reasonable amount, only to the USA. You had to pay Air India directly, and that was fine.

This month, they decided they want to be monetizing seat selection as well. Moreover, they went about implementing a botched up process. First and foremost, they took away seat selection for free from even their elites, right up to Maharajah Club (their Platinum tier of sorts). All these members are now wondering why should they be doing 75000 status miles (no other way to qualify!) if Air India will offer the step treatment to them.

To enable paid-seat selection, AI tied up with OptionTown, a service provider who does an excellent job usually with auction upgrades and other flight services. In India itself, they have customers in Vistara, SpiceJet, and Air India. The workflow for paid seat selection is straightforward. Customers pick an open seat on the seat map, if it is paid, they pay for it, and then the confirmation is done right away. The seat is subsequently greyed out on the seat map so that no one else can select it.

I am currently travelling in Sri Lanka, and instead of flying Jet Airways from Mumbai to Colombo, I went one-stop via Chennai on Air India to get here. When I tried to check-in, I was shown a seat map with seats assigned at the back of the plane. For instance, this is the seat map for the Mumbai-Chennai-Colombo segments I flew on April 26, 2018, and April 27, 2018, respectively.

To be able to get a better seat, perhaps up front, I thought I would pay and assign a seat. However, no, the process is clunky and does not work, except when they need to accept your money. I went to, a white-labelled website which is powered by OptionTown. After putting in the required details on the site, under the Preferred Seat option, this is what showed up.

Like you would see, this is another game of roulette by the airline, where instead of confirming the seat selection right away, there is a huge element of if. I did not realize this at the time of paying for this service though.

Anyhow, I played along. Since there were the two of us, we requested a Window and an Aisle Seat, hoping the middle seat would be free in case the flight was not full. This T&C popped up after that screen. This explains the full extent of how this is Air India fleecing us.

Important to note here some conditions that stand out:

  1. This is a non-refundable charge
  2. You do not get to select the seats, instead only the preference for the seats you would like
  3. To assign these preferred seats, the airline does not ask you which seats you would want. They can break up your group to seat you.

So for instance, if you an aisle seat and a window seat like I did, you do not have control if you would have one in Row 8 and the other in Row 23. They will just do it.

I paid up INR 300 for a preferred seat assignment, and never even got an email from OptionTown about the fact that they were working on it.

Next day, I check-in again, and I am told I was assigned a window seat, but not an aisle seat.

All right. Except it was the same seat we always had, and we indeed flew on these seats. So I ended up paying INR 300 extra to Air India for a service they did not provide me, and they did not even issue me a receipt for the expense.

However, the best summary for this is made by a poster on FlyerTalk. How I wish he had posted this before I paid up money. This is what he wrote to summarise the situation,

This is my first flight on AI since they started charging for seats. And based on what I could gather from their website and the OptionTown site it seems like yet another incredibly stupid implementation of a very simple idea. Here is what I could gather about the program. Please correct me if I’m wrong or missing any important points:

– Charged @ Rs. 200 for window & aisle, Rs. 100 for middle seat, Rs. 500 for first & exit row for domestic flights plus $1 for OptionTown. So the program isn’t too expensive
– No benefits for *A or AI elites – While I didn’t use my AI FFP# for this booking I couldn’t find anywhere that said I’d get the privilege if I switched it to AI, and I’m a Maharaja. Every other airline that I know that charges for seats always gives at least their elites better seat choices if not to the entire alliance

– All available seats are up for grabs at T-4

Now here’s the best parts:
– When you pay the fee the seat selection still isn’t guaranteed. You have to wait for a few hours for a confirmation email. If you don’t get your seat choice your money is refunded 5 days after the flight

And the better than the best part:
– Because AI is running this program stupidly through OptionTown you don’t get to see the seat map before you pay the fee. So you don’t know what seats are available and which ones have already been taken

And bestest better than the best part:
– You can’t even select the seat you want before you pay the fee! And from what I could make out from the site… you can’t even select it after paying the fee. So you can select the seat type you want like window/aisle/emergency/first row but you can’t select 12C for example. How moronic is that

Yet another example of how completely clueless AI management is. So far every single thing the mangement has done to help cut costs and boost revenues after the governement decided to put them up for sale can only lead to more people deserting the ailing airlines.

If I didn’t know better I would think that AI is purposely doing this to sabotage the sale and make the airlines unsellable and force the government to continue pumping money into it. But I know better. They’re just idiots.

Remember, this is not the first time the airline has pulled off a fast one on passengers. They also serve only vegetarian meals on their domestic flights, and have a lot of planes with Europe style Business Class, which they don’t tell you about before you buy a ticket.


Air India does not have their paid seat selection process sorted out, so it would be useless for you to bid your money to get seats assigned. This is one area I’d strongly advise you against shelling out money for Air India unless you are directly dealing with the airline, and not via OptionTown.

Have you had any experience with Air India preferred seating or Upgrade bidding on OptionTown?

About Ajay

Ajay Awtaney is the Founder and Editor of Live From A Lounge (LFAL), a pioneering digital platform renowned for publishing news and views about aviation, hotels, passenger experience, loyalty programs, travel trends and frequent travel tips for the Global Indian. He is considered the Indian authority on business travel, luxury travel, frequent flyer miles, loyalty credit cards and travel for Indians around the globe. Ajay is a frequent contributor and commentator on the media as well, including ET Now, BBC, CNBC TV18, NDTV, Conde Nast Traveller and many other outlets.

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  1. Biz travel is about special numbers to reach contact centre, seat selection, separate check-in, higher baggage allowance, lounge access, early or anytime boarding, early exit from aircraft, priority baggage handling, more frequent flyer mles, and of course better grade meal service. Seats alone dies not cut it.

  2. AJ,
    Is there any way to find out beforehand if your AI flight has a proper business class or European Style one?

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