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This airline booking hack is dividing the internet

Some couples book a window and aisle seat to try to get their own row. Some travelers hate it.

(iStock/Washington Post illustration)
6 min

The strategy is a favorite among well-traveled couples: Book the aisle and window seats in the same row, then hope that a modern-day air travel miracle will leave them with an empty middle seat.

In the best-case scenario — which occurs on the rare occasion when a flight isn’t completely booked — no one sits between them, and the duo gets to stretch out. The worst case? Some poor sap gets stuck in the middle of two people who still insist on gesturing, communicating and, in one unfortunate passenger’s case, spilling wine on their neighbor.

Most often, though, one member of the couple offers to switch, and the middle-seat dweller receives an unexpected upgrade to the aisle or window.

“Usually the person is thrilled,” said Scott Keyes, the founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights and an employer of the couple’s gambit when he and his wife, Anya, travel together without kids.

To the people who willingly chose the middle seat: We have questions

But as a viral tweet revealed in December, the stranger in the middle is not always thrilled — and some fellow travelers find the strategy stupefying, or even reprehensible.

In the post that spawned a variety of reactions and nearly 200,000 likes, writer-director Zack Bornstein wrote that the person sitting between him and his girlfriend declined their offer to take the aisle or window and instead settled in for the 5½-hour trip in the middle.

Most people agreed that a middle-seat preference was inexplicable. But some pointed the finger at the original booking decision as the real culprit.

“Trying to get a row to yourselves backfiring is delicious and I applaud the unmoving person,” one person wrote. “We’d all like a row to ourselves you know.”

Another chimed in: “Remember kids, if you want to sit next to your wife on a plane, buy two seats that are actually next to each other instead of expecting strangers to accommodate your bad planning.”

Offered a third: “Real energy vampire is the one who booked two seats apart and is now making it someone else’s problem.”

Cornell University PhD student Elissa Domingo Badiqué, 40, said they were bothered that so many people employing the hack seemed to feel entitled to switch with the person in the middle — and that some on social media had discussed ways to punish people who wouldn’t switch.

“Just know that you tried to game the system and lost. Take the loss gracefully,” Badiqué said. “Please do not try to make the person in the middle seat suffer because you didn’t get what you wanted.”

Badiqué, who is not a fan of gambling, prefers the aisle and said their partner is usually fine with taking the middle. They’ve never rolled the dice to try to get an entire empty row.

“I wasn’t really interested in trying to even possibly haggle someone out of the middle seat if it should happen,” they said.

The unofficial rules for every seat on a plane: The middle

While preparing to board a flight last week, 26-year-old Hanna Detwiler, who lives in Ohio, said she and her fiance always book seats next to each other, despite the fact that he’s more of an aisle fan, and she likes the window.

“I was talking to my fiance, and I was like, ‘It never even occurred to me that you could do that and chance having the whole row,’” she said. “Have I been doing this all wrong?”

Still, Detwiler, who works in local government, said she would rather sit next to someone she knows than risk being stuck next to a stranger.

“I always think about sleeping, too,” she said. “I’d rather sleep and accidentally fall on my fiance than a person I don’t know.”

Flight attendant Rich Henderson, 34, said he can tell when a couple is playing the game: They’re sitting on either side of an empty middle seat as he walks through the cabin closing bins before takeoff.

“They’re just staring at you waiting to find out their fate,” said Henderson, who runs the Two Guys on a Plane blog and social media accounts with his husband, Andrew Kothlow. Professionally, he said the tactic is not a problem. But personally, he’s not a fan.

As a perk of his job, Henderson flies free but often has to take whatever seat is available. He recalls one trip with his mother where they both ended up in middle seats. He was between a husband and wife.

“The wife looks at me immediately, just dead in the face, and said, ‘We’re not moving, so don’t ask,’” he said. The couple wore noise-canceling headphones and spent much of the eight-hour flight gesturing to get each other’s attention and passing food and drinks, at one point spilling red wine on Henderson.

“Looking back, it was funny,” he said. “But I was not enjoying it in the moment.”

The great airplane debate: Should you ever switch seats?

Some savvy travelers have offered their own strategy, one that carries significantly less risk: Book aisle seats across from each other. That’s the solution for Brian Sumers, editor of the Airline Observer business newsletter. In a message, he said the aisle-window gamble is problematic at a time when airlines have few empty seats.

“It rarely works,” he said.

But for fans, including some high-profile fliers, the idea of a whole row is too tempting to pass up.

“We’re a ‘couple’ of flying fanatics who do this every time,” Sara Nelson, international president for the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, said on Twitter, including a photo of herself and the union’s communications director, Taylor Garland. “Better chance of getting the row to ourselves.”

If someone does nab the middle, Nelson said, she offers to switch to the middle and give the extra person the aisle.

Chris Medland, a freelance journalist and broadcaster who covers Formula One, tries to use points to upgrade to more spacious premium economy when he travels with his fiancee. But when that’s not possible, they choose the window-aisle combo. He thinks it has been a success once and defended the practice on Twitter, saying he would accept the decision if someone in the middle didn’t want to switch.

“I see it as a gamble,” said Medland, 33, who lives outside London. “I always felt it kind of balanced itself out. You win some, you lose some, and if you’re willing to lose some, you can’t complain.”