The Great Airplane Debate: Should You Ever Change Seats?

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

I don’t know if I have that face that people think I’d just do,” said the longtime aviation journalist and aisle seat lover. “But it’s ridiculous. It’s almost gotten weird.”

Some people want to sit with a spouse or friend. Some try to stay close to children. Others just don’t want a middle seat. As someone who uses their frequent flyer status — or pays extra — to select a seat near the front, Wilson is usually unperturbed.

Unless it’s a parent-child situation, “because I was there and I did 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.

The scenario can become a problem or at least a major annoyance. Social media posts and messaging accounts often provide examples of cheeky seat-swap requests and rude replies — or perfectly reasonable requests and understandable replies, depending on which side you’re on.

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

Model and TV personality Vogue Williams made headlines in August after she used swear words on her podcast to describe a man who originally didn’t want to act so her family could be together after booking the wrong place.

In response, Daily Mail columnist Jaci Stephen wrote that she always refuses to give up her place for families.

“Here’s the simple fact: if you’re traveling as a family or in a group, book your seats together beforehand,” she wrote. “Your inability not to do so is no one else’s responsibility, and you certainly shouldn’t make others uncomfortable if they want to stick to their probably well-organized plans.”

At least three Reddit threads this year, most recently in early September, have explored whether a passenger was at fault for not swapping families’ seats. (They have all been validated.)

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

If it’s okay to ask

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

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

And there are no guarantees, especially since many airlines charge fees for selecting specific seats.

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

If someone has a valid reason to request a new seat, Whitmore said they should ask the airline before boarding.

“You go to the gate and say, ‘This is the situation, is there anything you can do to help us?'” she said. “Waiting to get on the plane puts everyone in a precarious position.”

Laurie said if someone is seated in a bulkhead seat behind a bulkhead, they may be asked to give this up for a passenger traveling with a service animal, as legroom is more generous.

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

“I was like, ‘Oh my god, I can’t in good conscience let this guy be cooped up in the middle seat for three and a half hours,'” she said.

“I think it’s always okay to ask, but it’s never okay to be angry when someone says no,” Laurie said.

If only it’s 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 tough sell. An almost impossible task: exchange a free seat in the main cabin for any choice that is subject to a surcharge – especially with more 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 her request to be “yes.”

“When you go in with that assumption, you come with that attitude that you deserve it and that person has to give it to you,” he said. “It’s not a polite way of asking someone to give up what they planned or expected.”

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 put yourself in someone else’s place on purpose, that’s wrong — that’s rude,” she said. “Then the flight attendant has to intervene. Then the flight attendant has to make you go back to your original seat. That causes delays.”

She said people who don’t plan their seat selections need to be prepared to either sit apart, arrive early to speak to a gate agent, or pay for an upgrade when they arrive at the airport.

However, experts agree that there can be circumstances where travelers are split up for reasons that don’t boil down to cheap behavior or sloppy planning.

Perhaps they made a last-minute booking due to an emergency, or they may have been rebooked on a different-layout aircraft following a cancellation and lost the seats they selected. Sometimes passengers don’t realize that they have booked the most restrictive fare that does not allow seat selection or guarantees that all members of a group will be seated 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 remember that we’re all in this together, we should all treat everyone the way you would like 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 to the person you are asking and understand the position you are putting them in,” he said.

He said it’s also okay to ask a flight attendant to facilitate this if the request is made on the plane. They can sometimes help make the decision easier when the need for replacement is extreme.

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

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

“Don’t expect to trade a middle rear seat for an aisle with more legroom,” he wrote. “Give a convincing reason. Ask nicely. Offer cash or gift cards.”

©Washington Post The Great Airplane Debate: Should You Ever Change Seats?

Fry Electronics Team

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