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Seat-review sites put airline passengers in prime position

By Tim Hume, for CNN
April 10, 2012 -- Updated 1045 GMT (1845 HKT)
A view of business class in an Emirates Boeing 777-300ER, submitted to SeatGuru by a passenger.
A view of business class in an Emirates Boeing 777-300ER, submitted to SeatGuru by a passenger.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Passengers are using seat-review websites to avoid booking bad seats
  • Sites provide seat maps with warnings, or passenger reviews of the airline's offerings
  • The sites say the airlines pay attention to what is being said

London (CNN) -- Booking an airline seat can be something of a lottery -- the losing of which can be the ruin of a long-haul flight.

But popular seat-review websites are taking the gamble out of flying, allowing passengers to avoid drawing the short straw that could see them trapped for hours in a seat with cramped leg room, or surrounded by queues for the bathroom.

Sites like Skytrax or SeatGuru arm travelers with information -- through user reviews and aircraft seat maps, respectively -- to help them to make smarter booking decisions, and get the best travel experience for their money.

Skytrax, a British website, offers a vast database of reviews of airplane seats, airlines and airports. Some of the reviews come from Skytrax's team of 30 professional auditors, but about 90% of its seat reviews -- divided into separate sections for economy and business or first-class travelers -- are user-generated.

Passengers submit their opinions of an airline's offerings during their flight, helping others to choose which airline to fly with on a given route. But that doesn't mean you should expect to be confronted with the tirades of disgruntled passengers, says Skytrax CEO Edward Plaisted.

We try to have user reviews that actually contain some meaning -- we're not interested in 'The flight attendant was rude and didn't give me a third whiskey'
Edward Plaisted, Skytrax CEO

"Initially about 60% of the reviews were people wanting to have a rant at something," said Plaisted, adding that these reviews were now in the minority. "Because we get so many reviews, we can afford to be slightly selective."

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About 300 new reviews are posted each day, he said, with staff working to filter out the malicious, the factually inaccurate, or those where the author seemed to be simply letting off steam. "We try to have user reviews that actually contain some meaning -- we're not interested in 'The flight attendant was rude and didn't give me a third whiskey'."

SeatGuru, founded in 2001, offers a different service. Passengers enter their flight number to obtain a color-coded seat map of the aircraft, displaying the best and worst seats to book. Its database contains 722 color-coded seat maps for planes from 95 airlines, which have been compiled with the assistance of more than 45,000 flier reviews.

SeatGuru recently launched a free app allowing users to access the site on mobile phones, alerting them to relevant details such as whether a particular seat comes with a power outlet, extended legroom, or has a limited recline.

Andrew Wong, regional director for SeatGuru, said consumers were "becoming more savvy, as airlines charge more for exit rows and bulkhead seats." He added: "As prices become more competitive, sites like SeatGuru become more important."

See also: Budget airlines spread their wings with long-haul flights

Airlines were also clearly paying attention, he said, as they contacted the site with updates on a constant basis.

"They're proactively helping us with new layouts or corrections," he said. "They realize we're part of the research process in choosing a flight and shopping around."

Users of the site also regularly contribute photographs of their seats -- ranging from cramped, cattle-class ordeals to luxurious first-class beds -- to the site's Facebook page.

In an age when social media gives customers greater power to speak out about poor services or products, airlines realize "there's not point trying to change or hide this type of information," Wong said. "They're interested in just making sure the maps are up to date."

Plaisted said it was clear that airlines were paying attention to the power of the sites, as he suspected airline staff had attempted to plant negative reviews of competitors on Skytrax.

"They simply aren't very good at covering their tracks -- you can track the IP address and see it came from another airline's corporate office," he said. "I won't name the airlines because they're all as bad as each other."

On the whole though, the aviation industry seemed receptive, he said.

"I think most of them enjoy it," he said. "They like seeing these reviews, which are often quite different to what they see through their own customer feedback."

And just as for the customer, Plaisted said, "it doesn't cost them anything."

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