There is a good piece on the WSJ about airline seat selection and how airlines are trying to “trick” you to pay for a seat, although more seat selection is likely available closer to departure. You can access the article here OR you can use Google to search for “Airline Seats Available for Elite Fliers Only WSJ” to access the entire article.
Airline are today very hard at pushing all kind of premium or preferred seating and elite members typically have those for free. Non-elite members are often presented hardly any other choices that some middle seats on the back and even families are often seated apart from each others.
According to the WSJ piece, there are sometimes seat maps, where 40% of the seats are reserved for elites or you need to pay for access a “preferred seats.
The WSJ had the following graph from a recent American Airlines flight that illustrates the difference:
Above is the seat map for American Airlines Platinum elite.
The non-elite had only one middle seats to choose from or had to pay for preferred seating.
I just recently encountered this when flying on Air Transat from Montreal to Glasgow. There was practically no good seats left without having to fork out cash at the time I made the booking couple of days prior to departure. I decided to wait out until checking in at the airport and got assigned a nice seat in the forward economy cabin and there was only two of us on a row of four seats.
If you don’t need “Preferred” seating, it is not worthwhile to pay to get assigned one. Sometimes all the non-preferred seats are gone by the time of checking in and you will then assigned one of the better ones for free.
There is a slight chance that a passenger with no advance seat assignment may be bumped off the flight, but it is very unlikely to happen.