Aisle Seat Bathroom Etiquette

If you’re in the aisle seat, is it fair game to go to sleep?

And if you’re not in the aisle seat — and you have to use the lavatory — do you wake the person sitting next to you in order to get up and go, or do you hold it?

Does it depend on how long the flight is?

I just got off of a fairly short flight, I was upgraded — best I can tell the only passenger with a complimentary upgrade on the flight — and wound up in a middle seat. And I had to use the facilities.

The man sitting next to me in the aisle sleep was dozing off. I had a real conundrum.

  • It was only a 90 minute flight, so it’s not unreasonable for me to wait.
  • But it was an international flight. Into the pit that is Miami. I was going to want to get off of that flight as quickly as possible (the customs queues were long for everyone even Global Entry tonight). Not having to make a stop enroute would be critical.

I noodled on this and decided that taking the aisle seat means you control your own destiny, but it comes with the inherent risk that you’re going to have to accommodate the passenger next to you. But I still didn’t wake him.

See, it turns out that I was sitting next to the Senior Vice President of a Very. Large. Cruse Line.

And I book frequent flyer award tickets. Frequently for cruise passengers. And I would like it very much if this cruise line would recommend my service when they have passengers who would like to decline air and use their miles but are frustrated in trying to do so. (Cruise lines frequently subsidize the air they’re offering to get the sale of the cruise.)

So even though I felt that I had a strong moral case to wake him to use the lavatory, I decided I had a poor business case for doing so. So I waited. I cleared immigration and customs, headed to the lounge, got myself on standby for an earlier flight into a different airport. And then used the facilities.

Would you have handled it any differently?

Does the aisle seat passenger have an obligation to be accommodating to those in the window (or middle) that need to get out? Is it ok to wake the person in the aisle? What would you have done?

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, 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. Still trying to figure out how you were in a middle seat after being upgraded, and somehow only had access to one aisle?

  2. when you gotta go, you GOTTA GO! wake them up. if you don’t then you suffer your own consequences.

  3. Yep Gary you’re correct… this conundrum does have two components (no pun intended) #1) a more liquid asset Moral component and #2) a more solid Business Financial component – both of which should have been tested with a precise Cost Benefit Analysis to calculate a nominal Risk Reward Ratio such that you could determine the exact Stop Loss Threshold for waking your seatmate thus allowing you to create an effective Exit Strategy which would grant you safe passage to the nearest lavatory. Did you run the numbers?

    Oh what the heck… Push the Flight Attendant Call button and have them do the dirty work of waking up Mr. SVP aisle seat sleeper with some phony ruse. Works every time!

  4. Of course if it was Ryanair, I could see the Aisle seat person also wanting to charge a buck, as he/she is being as much inconvenienced by your need to go as the airline is 🙂

    Or you could offer to subsidize his/her visit to the facilities:-)

    Jokes apart, I remember the days when flights in and out of DC had a 30 min rule of not getting up. I used to fly Continental from Cleveland to Reagan and the flight attendant used to announce that they will delay pushback from the gate in Cleveland till all passengers needing to use the facilities had done so! (As by the time the flight reached cruising altitude it was within 30 min of DC)

  5. I fly mostly TATL or TPAC and always sit on the aisle. I tell the person next to me that I got the seat I wanted and if they needed to get up, just wake me. It is always appreciated. However, I did have one woman climb over and back using the armrests and I never knew a thing about it (until she told me later). Impressive.

  6. @Rolling Ze Dice I always try to fly AA where my hard won Lifetime Gold allows me to pick the better seats at time of booking. Since all of my travel is voluntary leisure, I will not book a flight where I cannot avoid a middle seat. Even if that means I cannot go somewhere I otherwise wanted to go. If I need to fly Southwest, I will pay the extra fee for early boarding to avoid a middle seat.

    So when you and your wife did not do what I did to even get seats together, and are both in those miserable middle seats, and ask me to give up the seat I went out of my way to make sure I had… NO, I will not suffer in a middle seat just so the two of you can chitchat for a few hours.

    If you are upset that I will not give you my seat, just because you prefer it to the one you ended up with by not going the extra mile as I did, you are the one who is being rude. BTW, your standard for labeling someone a “heartless savage” is silly. That term is appropriate for maximum security prisoners and drug gang members. Using it in this context just degrades the language.

  7. Last night, I was in United Economy flying back from Frankfurt. The woman in the aisle seat was awake but would not get up to let my wife or me in or out of our seats to use the lavatory. Instead, she angled her legs to the side as if in the middle of a theater and told us to slide by her. Of course, the people in the row in front of us had their seats all the way back, so it was next to impossible. I thought it was incredibly rude.

  8. Gary, you are my hero! “So I waited. I cleared immigration and customs, headed to the lounge, got myself on standby for an earlier flight into a different airport. And then used the facilities.”

    Most of us over sixty years of age do not have to ponder the question of should or should I not disturb the aisle seat passenger. When there is a need, it can be urgent and waiting is not an option.

    As a frequent international flyer, I am always in an aisle seat and happy to permit my seat neighbor to exit as needed.

  9. So maybe I caused some confusion in the way I described the flight. I was being generic in talking about aisle seat vs window or middle and access to the lavatory — not meaning to say I was upgraded but the row had a middle seat. Sorry for the confusion. I was upgraded and had a window seat, there was no middle on the flight.

  10. No way, kidneys, bladders and colons come first…quite frankly, I wouldn’t care if the pope was sitting next to me, although he probably would be much more understanding.

  11. I had an unexpected “calling” after eating that creepy brown chicken on an international flight. I had a window seat. I stood up on the seat, stepped on the middle arm rest, the aisle arm rest, and was in the aisle in no time and the guy never woke up. Getting back to my seat was a little more complicated as I had to wake him up.

  12. On a short flight like that, unless you really have to go, I would say wait until you’re off the flight or the person seems to have woken up. On a long flight, all bets are off.

  13. I always enjoy being a pain in the ass and forcing the aisle kings to allow me to use the toilet. I especially enjoy waking them up….Haha

  14. The solution is to take an aisle seat next to an athletic passenger who can hop over you without waking you up. (Yes, this has happened to me. 🙂

  15. What I find most disturbing is that even though you needed to go, you were not prepared to even mildly inconvenience the person blocking your exit, who you perceived as a VIP who may be inclined to throw you a few business crumbs, or not, if you were subservient and not disturb him in any way.
    Any regular flyer knows the risks of another passenger needing to move past them for a toilet stop, and any polite request is usually accommodated happily. Of course, if you were jumping up every 5 minutes it would be a different story.

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