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A few airlines do not assign seats (e.g., Southwest), but do assign you a boarding group based on how early you confirm your flight on-line within 24 hours of the flight.
As they receive your booking for a specific flight, most airlines will promptly assign you a seat. If so, visit its web-site soon after, and if dissatisfied with the automatic selection, see if you can choose another inter-actively from all available seats on the plane in your cabin class. If you are checking in at the airline's counter with no seat yet assigned, you should ask if a desirable seat is still available.
What's ''desirable''? Different seat types on a plane have advantages over others:
On well-equipped aircraft, some seats in each row may have '''entertainment electronics installed underneath'''. This can significantly compromise foot room for those seated behind. Poor foot room can be a major annoyance and source of discomfort on long flights. SeatGuru (noted just below) can help you avoid this.
There are some special rows too:
* '''Exit row''' seats are located next to the emergency exit rows, and have significantly greater legroom than standard seats. You also have easier access to the aisles regardless of whether you are sitting in an exit or the aisle seat. A disadvantage of these seats is that the tray tables are tucked into the armrests on some aircraft and as a result, you can't lift the armrests. This shouldn't be much of a problem when you have occupants beside you, but if there is none you may want all the space to yourself. In addition, some carriers may require all your hand baggage to go in the overhead compartment if you are in these rows since no other seats are directly in front of you. In theory, passengers in these seats are required to help attendants with the door in an emergency, so you might not be allowed to sit there if you are physically unable to help, if you are deaf or blind, if you are a child or supervising a child or if you are pregnant. Because of the desirability of exit-row seats, some airlines now charge extra for them, using the name "Economy Plus" or similar. If you're very tall you may sometimes get these seats without paying but don't count on it. Ask specifically at check-in and state the reason you want one.