14 Empty Seats: How A Passenger’s Plea For Legroom Was Rejected By American Airlines

Growing up, if there were empty seats on a plane you could move around once the doors closed.

  • That was great because sometimes you could grab a row of seats to yourself on a long haul flight.
  • Maybe there’d be an empty exit row or bulkhead seat with more legroom.
  • Sometimes you just want to spread out when there are two seats next to each other.

As a kid I loved moving to an empty center aisle row in back when flying to Australia. But now that airlines sell specific seats for more money, including extra legroom seats, the rules are more complicated.

  • You can probably move around within the coach cabin as long as you’re not taking an empty extra legroom seat.
  • You should probably ask a flight attendant, because your ability to change seats is really at their discretion.

One American Airlines passenger found out that just because there are open seats, and they ask a flight attendant, doesn’t mean they’ll be able to move. In fact just because they offer to buy the extra legroom doesn’t mean the airline will even take their money.

This woman, flying an American Eagle regional jet from New York to Nashville, discovered that the seating was tighter than she expected. Her knees hit the seat back in front of her, and the passenger in front of her was reclining during the flight, too.

But before departure she noted 14 open seats and asked a flight attendant if she could switch. She was told no. She asked if she could buy one of those open seats with more legroom. She was told no.

American Airlines flight attendants don’t have the ability to upsell passengers, which is really a lost revenue opportunity – considering the airline has armed them with iPhones this should be easy. Some airlines even let you spend miles on board for better seats.

But even when ground personnel came onto the aircraft the answer was still no. I’ve found United Airlines more accommodating of seat upsells during the boarding process, as part of how they keep passengers from just taking any open seat.

You might say it was incumbent upon the passenger to buy the right product for themselves from the start, but it’s not always easy for the average traveler to figure out what that is. If they’re willing to spend money, and the seat is available, the airline should be able to make that happen. It’s something they used to allow for free!

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Typical AA.
    Argue w/ passengers rather than figure out how to make money.
    It is not up to passengers to just move around, even in coach.
    And, to be fair, this is not an AA mainline flight so is operated by one of their regional partners but the point is still the same

    And according to DOT data – which some will mock since they don’t know how to find it or want to discuss facts – United, not American, has the worse consumer complaint ratio so far in 2023 – even before their June operational meltdown complaints have been tallied.

  2. If American says “We only sell transportation, not a particular seat”, why can’t the PAX take an empty seat on push-back?

  3. It’s time for holiday travel so… amateur hour. Thoughts and prayers for all the regular flyers who have to travel this week and deal with divas like that.

  4. I have been on many AA commuter flights where they made people with assigned seats in forward cabin move to the back for weight and balance issues.

    This used to happen a lot on flights that were half full or less, like every third flight or so. I do not fly many commuter flights anymore. Maybe it has changed.

    Not saying for sure that’s what happened here, but if that was the issue, then the agent and FA should have mentioned it. Even if it was not the issue I am surprised they did not say that was the reason just to end the controversy.

  5. Gary,

    Here’s where an oldie from the “past” really did it right. AirTran Airways would allow FA’s to sell seats in the exit row & “business class” on their onboard tablets. Spirit has that functionality right now, and possibly even Frontier. I was surprised to see it, but I find it odd that the ULCCs are the ones with this tech and NOT the likes of America, United, Delta, etc.

    I’m also wondering if the passenger was a basic economy guest and they couldn’t upgrade or pay for a better seat.

  6. What’s the point of the wi-fi enabled devices that AA flight attendants carry around the aircraft if they’re not able to upsell? Doesn’t AA have the most debt of the big 3 US airlines? The really need to get their financial act together, along with common sense by letting a (discomforted) passenger move to empty seats.

  7. This is a regional jet. Didn’t we just recently establish on this very same blog that moving seats on planes, especially small planes, can mess with weight and balance?

    If the 14 empty seats were up front, where the larger leg room seats usually are, no may have been the only safe answer. (Or only answer that wouldn’t cause a delay from recalculating weight and balance.)

  8. Well, as a United captain told me before he retired, the real mantra of his airline is, “We’re not happy until you’re unhappy.” Assuming the FA was just following orders and the message sent out for the complaint was a mindless canned response, AA has succeed in taking a passenger (customer) who was having a bad flight (product purchase) and making it a worse one. By the usual way these things work she will tell all her friends who likely will reconsider flying American. Everybody loses.

    On the other hand, by just allowing a slight change (a reseating, explaining to her that this is not normally done) the customer is very happy and tells everyone how good service is. The net cost to the airline is zero but everybody wins. Sometimes giving something away for free is profitable.

  9. Lots of good comments here, on a great article as usual, Gary ! @Tim Dunn, I’m 100 % agreed with you, although at the start I may have said “As is common for the recent AA” as opposed to “Typical AA” (I’m not sure what coffee they’re serving at headquarters, but their recent anti-customer attitude has been a real head-scratcher). @Christopher Raehl, you’re absolutely correct that weight & balance are a big deal, and can affect passenger moves. That said, a customer-friendly Airline would have the FA seek permission from the Pilot first. I’m still a believer in the good that I see in AA, but will agree that something’s changed.

  10. @drrichard, so we’ll say the flight attendant let’s this person change seats. Works out great for the person changing seats. Now the guy that paid extra for that preferred seat is pissed and takes it out on the F/A. Just had this same scenario on a long haul flight. My job is ALWAYS damned if you do and damned if you don’t. I’m great at what I do and most people couldn’t hack it. I’ve been to college and earned two degrees. This job takes a lot more skill than my two fancy degrees put together. Walter would be cowering in the aisle.

  11. Customers have the ability to go online and look at the seat chart. Seat charts give you information on all the seats, First, Economy Plus (extra leg room) Exit Row, seats with less leg room, behind the Exit Rows. As a retired gate agent, most of my customers were always curious as to where their seats were located and leg room. Most with less leg room would ask for more leg room, I’d offer the upsell, then they would say, I’ll ask the FA once I’m onboard. So, it’s not always the airlines fault, most think they can get a product for nothing and seats with more leg room are a product that has been around for a long time and makes money for the airlines.

  12. @Christopher Raehl How does this work for weight and balance issues on Southwest, when passengers are able to sit wherever they please? How does it work on Southwest flights that have a lot of empty seats?

  13. I don’t know what she means by “tall” and the almost helpful picture can be made by any short person scooching up in the seat. I’m 6’3″ with long lets and I’ve sat in economy on regional jets and never thought to ask to move. so yeah, the battle beween entitled diva passengers and prison matron flight crew continues. Best wishes and good luck to the tiktok winner!

  14. Unfortunately selling seats that end up with your knees not fitting is what airlines like to sell. Fortunately the JetBlue LAX-BUF nonstop round trip flight that I take once a year has greater pitch and is on a less cramped aircraft. I rarely have as much of a problem in Asia, even on AirAsia since upgrading is at a reasonable price. I feel sorry for this lady but this is what the major airlines in the USA sell to get to the smaller cities and some routes on these clown airplanes are really pricey, even in coach. Maybe she should have spent extended periods standing and in the lavatory. I would have moved without asking. It is better to beg for forgiveness than to ask for permission, something I learned as a kid.

  15. Rude of American, especially since the passenger offered to pay. AA should provide FAs with tools to upsell in flight. That being said, it’s not like the passenger grew taller between when she booked and when she flew.

  16. American Airlines customer service training must be based on the same training prison guards receive.

  17. The monetization of seats in economy is exhausting. We sell you seats, but make you move to accommodate basic economy passengers with children. We are no longer selling seats, but won’t let you make yourself comfortable with the space that is left (and won’t take your money). Honestly, I miss having assigned seats at check-in. But I also miss free checked bags (all 3 of them). It was so much nicer to travel with just a personal item and not have to fight for overhead storage space. I’ll wait for my bag as long as I don’t have to pay (credit card bag benefits are a type of season pass for baggage — not interested). I’ll even volunteer to gate check when they ask. I don’t travel with anything valuable enough that it can’t be replaced under even a paltry lost baggage insurance policy. If Southwest wasn’t the Hunger Games for seats, they would be a great airline.

  18. Southwest mostly flies larger planes. If this was smaller then weight and balance is more critical and they may have rules about needing to sort that out before leaving the gate.

  19. Was the passenger flying for the first time? If you have that tight a squeeze with the 30″ pitch on the E175 on that route, surely you’ve realized previously that buying the extra 4″ in Y+ is something to be done beforehand. Surely, developing a way to allow passengers to pay and upgrade at gate or in flight would seem like a good move (assuming weight balancing wasn’t at play here). A gate agent and FA following rules (even if they seem silly to some) is wrong? Ever see a kid try to stretch up for the “you must be this tall” mark? Seems like the photos might be a version of that.

  20. She just wanted a better seat without paying for one upfront. Then she expects everyone to accommodate her needs. Don’t tell me she didn’t buy the cheapest seat and knew exactly what she was doing.

  21. This is an entitled person trying to make something out of nothing.
    All of the videos conveniently don’t show how she is seated like a jackass, except in the one where you can see she is sitting with a pillow behind her.

    The main points of upselling on the flight are still valid, but the way this woman acts I wouldn’t have offered her shit either. She sounds horrible.

  22. This is typical of Gary’s opinion of the airline. If only I had nothing else to do with my time than find every customer complaint to help perpetuate the delusion that American is somehow the worst airline flying. Ive seen Flight Attendants that go above and beyond for customers but customers board the aircraft with outlandish expectations… to the whiney passenger, I’m sure you were offered countless chances to upgrade your seat for extra legroom, to even purchase a premium seat but you declined. Typical you get onboard and now you want to change the terms, it does not work. Is it a lost opportunity, perhaps but allow this to be a lesson rather than your chance to go viral. The average woman is 5’4 inches tall if you exceed that then purchase what is required. You would not go to the mattress store and buy a twin size bed if you require a King/Queen and then complain about the size of the mattress? Upgrades and purchases are done at the gate, NOT onboard thats not the FA’s fault. Along with your bags check your entitlement at TSA, more costs more…simple. Blaming Flight Attendants is silly for your own purchase. You went to the twitter page to complain as if you SHOULD have been accommodated, due diligence is the name of the game in anything you’re spending your money on in 2023/24. Stop romanticizing air travel thats was dissolved after 9/11 and blackhole-d post covid.

  23. I agree with everyone else. AA doesn’t give a rats ass about their customers. I can not wait until I retire and no longer have to fly my “corporate” airline anymore. (I’m pretty much stuck on AA for business travel or bust). But I will not use AA in my personal travel when I hit retirement. Bye Bye AA and BA (which is even worse than AA).

  24. This classy lady retaliated by keeping her foot in aisle so they couldn’t move the beverage cart.

    They did service from her seat.

    She got what she deserved. Doing this lost her any respect for her argument.

    Everyone knows you pay for your seat if you want extra legroom. Other paid, why should it be free for her? Entitled I suppose.

  25. Shaming others for not accommodating one’s personal wishes or mistakes seem endemic in our country.

  26. If the woman is tall then why didn’t she plan ahead and purchase a seat with extra legroom? What a childish entitled attitude this woman displayed. Boarding is busy, and the FAs are busy throughout the flight. Now people who don’t have the sense to plan ahead expect them to act as salespeople? I couldn’t agree more with DWT. This is amateur hour with a major heap of entitlement, lack of planning and unreasonable demands. I always go to websites that show the layout of the aircraft. I spend time deciding which seat is best for me and I’m willing to pay for it. Yes, you are darn right I’d be angry if someone.wanted what I paid for, for free. Especially if it meant that I’d have an otherwise empty seat next to me filled with a freeloader. It doesn’t take someone with an MBA to know that giving away some thing for free that another paid for is going to create resentment.I was just on a flight last night where I was seated in MCE. The flight attendant was standing opposite us during the boarding process. I witnessed 4 people ask if they could sit in the exit row MCE seats as they passed through. If that flight attendant had caved I would have complained. I’ve had people try to sneak into a MCE seat beside me and I ask them if that is their assigned seat. When they hem and draw, I tell them they can’t sit there, I paid for that seat. If the flight attendant overrules me, then I have to accept that as it is their decision but so far I’ve never had an FA okay it. Why are they doing to anger a higher revenue passenger for a bargain basement traveler?

  27. Someone said it was rude of American. Please remember they are a business, first and foremost. There are too many people with champagne taste on a beer budget. Please realize if you’re paying $200 – $300 for domestic flights, the airline isn’t making money off of you. It reminds me of banks 10 years ago. People often used to become enraged when they had to wait in line for 10 minutes to see a teller. Most of these people had; no mortgage with the bank, no CDs, etc. They had low balances in their accounts. They were bleeding banks dry and expected top service. Banks had to change their business model and now much of those transactions are done via atms.

  28. American is truly disgusting and so are their garbage collectors , I mean flight attendants.

    Totally useless, I don’t want them even for my safety.
    I can open the emergency exit without their help.

  29. At the end of the day it’s the passengers fault, she specifically chose a seat she didn’t have to pay for that informs you of the seats measurements. The passenger knew she was tall before she got in the plane, so of course she’s going to make the personnel rude in her mind because she can’t have her way. There’s zero sympathy for her because she hit confirm when choosing that flight & seat.

  30. US Airlines are exempt from customer service. Even average customers with mini and symbolic protect their entitlements. The Maxim that the customer is always right, forgotten by deregulation and the oligopoly of triple price-setting, guarantees that US legacy carriers have the reputation of the worst customer service in the world. They proudly earn it thanks to the revenue-generating Walmart service model imposed by management and given to line workers to “make it work.”

    The only customer that matters is the premium one. That is a luxury model of travel that has made of the democratization of travel a sneaky elitist front-cabin syndrome unnecessary and artificial that global airlines have avoided with a veneer of service that makes the average traveler at least not a primary air rage candidate. Far fewer reported instances of that internationally than in the domestic cattle market.

  31. US flight attendants are just plain mean and heartless. They hate their job and take it out on the passengers. I fly international airlines whenever possible. Much better experience.

  32. @alwysflying –

    You sound like a real gem. I’m sure you a hoot at parties and your friends love you. Sorry but every seat should be comfortable and fit the average passenger. Not everyone like us reader of this blog are frequent travelers and know that they might have to sit halfway in the aisle by choosing an economy seat. Putting this back on the passenger is ridiculous. Was she a Karen? Perhaps but I wasn’t on the flight. Should AA be more customer focused/ friendly and allow for onboard upgrades if needed? Absolutely.

  33. You can ask the flight attendants to change seats but if they say no please accept it. Don’t try to hold up the flight, buy the upgrade before you get on the airplane. Once you’re on, it’s too late.

  34. Seriously? Just look at the seat map before you board and claim a seat you know is empty. Chances of getting caught are slim and if you do get stopped you can just act as if it’s a mistake.

  35. I’ve heard the “weight and balance” excuse twice in the past few months after never hearing it in over 40 years of flying, so I call B.S. on that. Asking the pilots here, if an Embraer 175 weighs about 75 000 lbs, how many people have to move from one end to the other to affect your ability to fly the plane? Is it the change in weight distribution that catches you off guard or the distribution itself? On a half full flight is it a problem if we all purchase seats at the front of the plane?

  36. I just flew air Europa Madrid Havana for work (tour escort) and just before takeoff there was a PA announcement if anyone wanted premium economy seats upgrade price was €250 & to inform FA if interested.

    They had approx 14 seats empty and sold them all!

    there was no business class, only premium, with very generous pitch/recline

    That’s the first time in many decades that an airline has done that onboard.

  37. From the video, it looks like there was no one to her left. If that is the case, why didn’t she just sit sideways to her left, instead of sideways into the aisle?

  38. Oh good lord
    I was expecting a legitimate complaint about a transcon or international flight not some Karen who can’t, just can’t, handle a short flight.

  39. I was on a late night AA flight, aisle seat. A woman next to the window was not feeling well and was in the bathroom for a long time. I wanted to go back to sleep. I asked the flight attendant If I could sit in one of the seats in an empty row of the emergency exit. They told me people pay extra to sit there. So rather than have someone in the emergency row they said no.

  40. @guflyer: Did you miss the part about regional jet?

    Southwest doesn’t fly regional jets, so weight and balance isn’t as much if an issue.

    I would also bet that WN has a very good prediction of where people will sit given a certain passenger load.

  41. As someone who is a flight attendant for another North American airline, some companies have policies which forbid flight attendants from moving from regular seats to Comfort/Preferred seating this includes emergency aisle /exit seating; this includes any service and products offered from one cabin. Some companies even have consequences for flight attendants which made lead to managerial meeting which put the employee on a company watchlist for the next 6 months for potential disciplinary issues down the road, or worse suspension for doing such things (while this may be a far reach; its still plausible even for my own employer.

    Safety side: some of those seats like emergency row also come with restrictions such as weight, age, language barrier, and ableness (person of vision, movement, or hearing impairment). Regulations prevent such people even if they want to sit there because they may need to lift a 25-30lb window on older planes. Also, the people in the emergency exit row are generally the people who will be expected to assist with deplaning other passengers.

    Service side: Just because an employee may have a company device, does not mean they have the ability to up-sell seats. Many defer to the gate agent/customer service agent to make the call to sell or not (which might related to not selling it due to cut off times for push-back]. This affects also passenger list of those onboard, what services that are provided to them, and etc. That very list is also one way for the company of backtracking and finding out who sat there, and if an issue with the seat, IFE, cabin issue arose that affected them would lead to compensation. There generally is more flight attendants too, so how would you ensure which passengers get dibs on the seat first? What would the policy be? First come first serve? Company elite status upgrade first? Highest bigger first? Flight attendants have no idea what you paid in advance for. Hence, why many companies defer to the gate agent making that final call.

    Overall: The company objective is to preserve the services that it sells to the public (consistency) and benefits of loyalty with the company . Whether you agree with it or not, is not really for the employees to debate. Rather they are merely enforcers of the company policies and government regulations.

    While it may seem simple to solve many of the customer relation issues, it is not. Flight attendants end up being the mediator for a lot of these problems; if not the gate agents. Pilots rarely get involved unless it means offloading someone due to a security/safety risk or they feel the need protect their crew.

    I am not saying American cabin crew and flight crew were not dismissive. Unfortunately, it seems like in this situation, it was not possible. From her view, she could have paid for more room. However, the different employees perspective, there’s much going on: on-time departure, push-back, potential delays due to headwind, turbulence and etc. I think there was an opportunity for American employees to potentially explain why they were not able to.

  42. That’s a crazy AI illustration – an economy class cabin with 6-6 configuration and half the seats are backwards facing? (Let’s ignore that the seats don’t align with the backrests and only one side of the plane gets antimacassars for some reason.)
    Jokes aside, I can see why it’s disappointing from a passenger perspective but for the airline it is probably more expensive in terms of training and admin costs to design and implement a system (e.g.if there’s only one upgrade seat available, who gets priority if multiple passengers want to upgrade? Do you get a refund of baggage fees if you upgrade in-flight?). A lost opportunity but also a small market of customers who get only the urge for a better seat once they’re on the plane and have sat down.

  43. I think it’s like a control thing now, they feel the need to keep everybody hostage, belted into their “assigned” seats. I had an empty seat next to me once, somebody came over to talk to me during a flight and sit by me, they made her get up and go back to her seat. (This was a stranger but we had been talking across an aisle a row or 2 back from me.)There was no reason she could not have sat there except somebody was on a power trip. I hate flying so much.

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