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The great airplane debate: Should you ever switch seats?

No one wants to be in the middle

(iStock/Washington Post illustration)
8 min

Benét J. Wilson isn’t sure what makes her a magnet for seat-swapping requests.

“I don’t know if I have that face that people think I will just do it,” said the longtime aviation journalist and aisle seat aficionado. “But it’s ridiculous. It’s almost become comical.”

Some people want to sit with a spouse or friend. Some are trying to stay close to children. Others just don’t want a middle seat. As someone who uses her frequent flier status — or pays extra — to choose a seat near the front Wilson is typically unmoved.

Unless it’s a parent-and-child situation, “because I’ve been there and done that,” Wilson said, her answer is a short and simple “no.”

“I’m sure there are good reasons, but in the end that’s not my problem,” she said.

No, I will not switch airplane seats with you

The scenario can become a problem, or at least a major annoyance. Social media posts and news accounts frequently provide examples of cheeky seat-swapping requests and rude responses — or completely reasonable requests and understandable responses, depending on whose side you take.

“It’s a stressful situation for everyone involved in the actual switch and everyone seated around the people trying to make the switch and the crew,” said Bobby Laurie, a former flight attendant and host of the syndicated travel talk show “The Jet Set.”

An Irish model and TV personality made headlines in August after using profanity on her podcast to describe a man who initially didn’t want to trade so her family could be together after she booked a wrong seat. In response, Daily Mail columnist Jaci Stephen wrote that she always refuses to give up her seat for families.

“Here’s the simple fact: if you want to travel as a family or in a group, book your seats together beforehand,” she wrote. “Your incompetency in failing to do so is no one else’s responsibility and you should certainly not be making others feel uncomfortable when they want to stick to their probably well organized plans.”

At least three Reddit threads this year, most recently in early September, have explored the question of whether a passenger was in the wrong because they wouldn’t change seats for families. (They were all validated.)

There are clearly strong feelings on both sides of the issue.

When it’s appropriate to ask

Etiquette expert Jacqueline Whitmore, founder of the Protocol School of Palm Beach and a former flight attendant, said an acceptable reason to ask for a swap is if a traveler is separated from someone who depends on them for care.

“Unless you have a minor child or perhaps even an elderly parent or someone you’re caring for that needs some special attention … I really don’t see where it’s mandatory or where you should ask to be moved,” she said.

And there are no guarantees, especially since many airlines charge to select certain seats.

“As a family you have to accept that maybe you’re not going to sit together because those people who have paid for those seats don’t want to give them up,” Whitmore said.

When someone does have a valid reason to request a new seat, Whitmore said they should ask the airline before boarding.

“You go to the gate, say, ‘This is the situation, is there anything you can do to help us out?’” she said. “When you wait until you’re on the plane, it puts everybody in a precarious position.”

The rules of flying like a decent human

Laurie said if someone is sitting in a bulkhead seat behind a divider, they may be asked to give that up for a passenger who is traveling with a service animal because the legroom is more generous.

Many fliers who responded to a Washington Post query on Twitter say they usually try to accommodate a family with kids — though some included the caveat that they would not move from the front to the back of the plane or switch to a middle seat. The U.S. Transportation Department issued a notice to airlines in July urging them “to do everything in their power to ensure that children who are age 13 or younger are seated next to an accompanying adult with no additional charge.”

Despite her strict switching policy, Wilson said she was once moved to voluntarily give up her aisle seat when she noticed an extremely tall man board.

“I was like, ‘Oh my God, I cannot in good conscience allow this guy to be crammed into the middle seat for 3½ hours,’” she said.

Several optimistic travelers said they would happily abandon their economy seat for one in business class or first class. Some fliers said it would be no big deal to make an even trade — aisle for aisle, window for window — in the same section, as long as they were flying solo that day.

“I guess it’s always okay to ask, but it’s never okay to be mad if someone says no,” Laurie said.

When it’s just rude

No one should expect another passenger to give up their window or aisle for a dreaded middle seat; don’t even think about asking.

Asking someone to leave the front of the plane for the back is another hard sell. A nearly impossible mission: swapping a free seat in the main cabin for any selection that required a surcharge — especially one with extra legroom or in a higher fare category. And don’t expect another passenger to leave their group so you can be with yours.

Laurie said no one should expect the answer to their request will be “yes.”

“If you go in with that assumption, you go in kind of with that attitude that you deserve it and that person needs to give it to you,” he said. “That’s not a polite way of asking someone to give up what they planned for or what they were expecting.”

The worst approach, Whitmore said, is to preemptively sit in a seat that doesn’t belong to you.

“People make mistakes all the time, but if you intentionally sit in someone else’s seat, that’s wrong — that’s rude,” she said. “Then the flight attendant has to get involved. Then the flight attendant has to make you go back to your original seat. It’s causing delays.”

The illustrated encyclopedia of airport people

She said people who don’t plan their seat selection have to be prepared to either sit apart from each other, arrive early to talk to a gate agent or pay for an upgrade when they get to the airport.

Still, experts agree there may be circumstances when travelers are split up for reasons that don’t amount to cheap behavior or careless planning. Maybe they booked last-minute because of an emergency, or perhaps they were rebooked on a plane with a different layout after a cancellation and lost the seats they chose. Sometimes passengers don’t realize they booked the most restrictive fare that doesn’t allow for seat selection or guarantee all members of a party sit together.

“You don’t know if they’re going on vacation, you don’t know if they’re going to a funeral, you don’t know if they’re going to a wedding,” Laurie said. “It’s always best to just remember that we’re all in this together, we should all treat everybody the way you want to be treated.”

How to ask — if you must

Politeness is key, Laurie said.

“Lead with the fact that you know it would be an inconvenience on the person you’re asking, understanding the position you’re putting them in,” he said.

He said it’s also okay to ask for a flight attendant to facilitate if the request is being made on the plane; they can sometimes help make the process easier if the need to swap is extreme.

Laurie said on one United flight when he was asked to change seats, he was offered a $25 credit. He swapped. Other travelers told The Post on Twitter that they had agreed to switch and then got upgraded or were given free drinks or food for their good deed.

Gary Leff, author of the travel blog View from the Wing, said on Twitter that “good trade bait” was important.

“Don’t expect to trade a middle seat in back for an extra legroom aisle,” he wrote. “Offer a compelling reason. Ask nicely. Offer cash or gift cards.”