Giving Up Your Seat

When You Can and Cannot Say ‘No’ When Someone Asks to Switch Seats With You on an Airplane

Duane Pickering, a 58-year-old flight attendant from Milwaukee, agrees, saying it’s entirely within a passenger’s right to decline an offer. “It’s up to them, really. It’s their seat, they paid for it, and if they don’t want to move, they don’t have to,” he says.

But as Roscoe and Del Rey articulate, there’s still considerable social pressure on the person to say yes. It’s hard to look a person in the eye and tell them no, you will not let them sit next to their loved one or their small child, even if it means wedging into the middle seat, in the back row of the plane, between two meaty dudes who have already established dominion over your armrests.

Not to mention, Masterson says she’s seen some passengers get noticeably angry and start swearing when their request for a seat change is rebuffed. “I’ve had to step in and say, ‘Ma’am that’s their seat, and they don’t have to change,’” she says.

My policy is that I will only ask if it’s the same type of seat, which is okay according to the rules. Of course, I won’t even usually ask then.

We had a different sort of situation when we recently flew. A guy was trying to save his (exit row) seat for his girlfriend… but you can’t save a seat on a plane. My wife called him on it and was called a “nasty bitch”… but we did get the seat.

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14 thoughts on “Giving Up Your Seat

  1. Ah, the complexities of etiquette in modern times, and with different types of people involved.

    It’s been a LONG time since I flew, but I think I’d only consent to give up my seat (for a less desirable seat; if it were an aisle-for-aisle seat swap, I’d almost always say yes) if it meant a caretaker and a person needing care get to sit together (parent and child; disabled person and their helper; elderly person who isn’t robust and a younger relative).

    But the other issue this brings up – with the “it’s sometimes perceived as rude to ask” thing, that’s a big difference between people. Some years back I saw it framed as “Ask Culture” vs. “Guess Culture” and it was enlightening.

    (Disclaimer: I am firmly in one variant of the “Guess Culture” camps. Some people regard “Guess Culture people as passive-aggressive because we don’t come out and ask for stuff. I only ask for stuff if (a) it’s a reasonable – in my mind – request and (b) I am pretty sure of hearing a “yes” without the other person being put out by the request or feeling undue pressure. As you might guess, I walk around some of the time with my wants and sometimes even my needs unmet, but that’s another story for another time)

    Anyway. One thing I’ve learned is that some people will ask for ANYTHING they even remotely want, no matter how much of a burden it might be to the person they’re asking. They’re fundamentally playing a long shot – expecting a no but hoping there’s a tiny chance of a yes. The problem comes when they meet up with a person like me, who lives in the belief that “people don’t ask for stuff unless they think it’s a reasonable request the other person should acquiesce to” and so I spend a lot of the time in a state of bewilderment, going, “How on EARTH is that a reasonable request” (A student wanting to immediately re-take an exam because “I wasn’t at my best this morning,” someone asking for an extension past the end of exam week, someone with a brim-ful grocery cart asking to go ahead of me in line when I have five things…) and I wind up then second-guessing myself (“Wait, is there some extenuating factor you do not see here?”)

    I think the airline situation makes it worse, because for someone like me, I’d feel like, “Well, if I don’t trade my bulkhead aisle seat for their middle at the back, they’re gonna be looking daggers at me all flight and tell all their friends about that b*tch on the plane who was unreasonable. Yes, I shouldn’t CARE, but somehow I do.

    It does feel to me, personally, coercive, when someone comes up in a “captive situation” like that and asks another person to forgo their own comfort for that other person’s comfort. Yes, there are extenuating cases (like I said: I’d move to keep a minor child and their parent or guardian together) but it seems often when I’m out and about in this world, I get people asking me to give up a small comfort of my own so they can have even MORE comfort than they already do….and I confess I kinda resent that. I don’t like feeling like I have to be the “bad guy” or assert myself more than I normally would so I retain the same level of comfort that most other people have.

    So I don’t know. Maybe the flight attendants (And I know they have too much to do already) have to take the lead in “We have a minor child and a parent who have somehow gotten separated, would two people be willing to move so they can sit together” thing.

    Amtrak – which I travel a lot – tends to take a more draconian view in coach. They tell single travelers on some routes to sit next to another single traveler, and have some banks of seats reserved for people traveling together or (especially the four-banks of facing seats on some Superliners) reserved for family groups. (That said: I now, when I can afford it, get a roomette, after having an unpleasant experience with another solo traveler that wound up with me moving to the cafe car and explaining to the conductor that I couldn’t go back and sit in my seat in coach, and he watched over me the rest of the trip)

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  2. I was asked to trade my window (!) seat for a middle (!) seat on one of my overseas (!) flights.

    I made the trade because, hey, I was 12 aisles away from anybody that I knew and I was just going to be miserable anyway.

    Two minutes later, someone else asked me to trade my middle (!) seat for his window (!) seat so he could sit next to the people that I was now sitting next to.

    All that to say: there is karma involved, probably.

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      • The window gives you a wall to lean against, control over whether the shade is up or down, something to look at when your gameboy or laptop is excruciatingly dull, and a you only have to sit next to one person who will inevitably try to talk to you instead of two of them.

        Just take some Imodium before the flight.

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      • For me, the aisle seat makes me feel slightly less like I’m trapped on a death-tube hurtling through the skies at ungodly speeds, while simultaneously surrounded by other meat-sacks that might either be carrying who-knows-what germs or worse, might TOUCH me.

        (I am not much fun at parties….)

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  3. Do to some physical issues, I pay extra for early boarding which usually puts me on eh aisle in the first few rows, so no, I am not giving that up. I don’t really care if you can’t see my cane.

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  4. Hang on, are there flights with rush seating? Don’t the boarding passes always have the seat number printed on them?

    If not, I’m confused how “saving a seat” for one’s girlfriend could even possibly work – someone is likely to come along with that seat number printed on their boarding card, and you can’t expect them to just guess which seat they should steal from someone else.

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  5. Good story related to me by a friend who’s an airline pilot:

    Pilot (not my friend) is in the cockpit during boarding. One of the stewardesses comes in and tells him there’s a small conflict over a seat in first class. A guy with major, flies a zillion miles a year status asked a guy if he would trade seats so he could sit next to his daughter. The seat occupant refuses. (I don’t recall how the conflict got up to the cockpit, but it did.)

    The pilot tells the stewardess to check with the gate agent if the seat assignments are good. Sure enough, everything’s kosher. But, it comes out that the refusenik is flying free, courtesy of his airline employee friend. The pilot finds this out and asks the guy to come out to the ramp with him, where he proceeds to tear him a new one, and lets him know his new seat assignment is back in coach.

    So, the lesson to be learned from this is always say yes!

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      • Plus honestly, a captain would be pretty foolish to do that to a full fare* (by which I mean non-comp, non-upgrade) first class passenger. The odds they are “somebody” is too high.

        * I do not mean literally “full fare,” which virtually no one ever buys. The actual published “full fares” are mostly a bookkeeping formality — which is not something to typical flyer needs to know about. For example, a typical “full fare” on coach might be $1,200, where that actual seat might go for $350.

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        • Yeah, the fact that this guy would call attention to himself by not moving is pretty dumbfounding.

          The airlines are bringing this upon themselves in their drive to monetize nearly everything, even where you sit in economy.

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  6. I used to fly 20 times a year. I’ve never had a conflict. Every swap I’ve seen is someone who will trade an aisle or window for a middle next to their kid.

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  7. I’ve been asked rarely. If it’s a mom and small kid, probably. Otherwise..you’re on your own.

    I paid for and picked this seat. You want it….pay me or comp me better.

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