Are You Allowed To Use The Empty Seat Next To You On A Plane?

You used to be able to take any open seat in your cabin once the doors closed. That meant if you were in a middle seat, you might take an open aisle. You might move closer to the front. Or you might head for an empty row in the back so you could stretch out. As a kid I remember making a bee-line for an empty middle row on an American Airlines flight to Sydney, so I could lay down and sleep. But you’re always taking a chance that the flight will be empty enough to do this.

There was no self-upgrading, so you couldn’t just move from economy to business class. And now that airlines charge for ‘premium’ seats in coach they don’t usually let you go from regular coach to extra legroom because of the revenue leakage. People might not pay if they knew they could take an extra legroom seat for free that was empty once everyone had boarded.

But surely the seat next to you, if left empty, is fair game for use right? You can spread out a bit. One of the best thing about Southwest Airlines opening seat for families is that no one wants to sit next to your lap infant, so there’s a good chance you get that extra seat for free instead of having to buy it.

Not everyone shares this view. Matt Tolhurst took to social media to share his frustration with an American Airlines flight attendant who, he says, scolded his wife for putting their 4 month old baby down in the empty seat beside her while she pumped breast milk inflight.

I reached out to American Airlines for comment on Thursday, and they did not respond. However it seems to me that the reported actions of the crew were out of line. That said it’s also true that an infant with their own seat must be in a safety seat “during taxi, takeoff, landing and whenever the ‘fasten seatbelt’ sign is on.” At other times, though, it would seem fine to place the lap infant in the seat beside the mother.

And American Airlines official policy even contemplates a parent using the empty seat beside them for a lap infant (emphasis mine):

To carry on a safety seat, you must have bought a seat for the child, or a seat must be available next to you. If an unoccupied, adjoining seat is not available, the gate agent will check the safety seat to your final destination.

Clearly the best option, though, if you’re traveling with a lap infant and aren’t going to buy that extra seat is Southwest’s approach to seating.

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. I am not going to call the OP a liar, but his claim that the seatbelt sign was off on an AA flight makes his story highly suspect…


    I will see myself out now.

  2. Have now read a bit more and noticed the safety issue is alluded to. Seems to me policy should reflect the risk of a “loose” unrestrained baby as opposed to restrained in some way…in mom’s arms or carrier. So policy wording needs to say at all times the baby must be restrained in the event of unforeseen turbulence. This is the family that would jump at the poor care and sue if the baby was injured or worse should it go flying through the cabin. Especially if mom had not been warned and FA’s had not done their job. Mom should have maybe pumped and filled her baby bottle before departure so she could hold baby? Baby’s are a big responsibility. Though I imagine maybe this was one of those worse case scenarios with a family emergency, only way to get there was to fly, baby is a breastfeeder so has to stay with mom…Definitely think there might have been room for a little more compassion on the AA side…

  3. I’m not trying to be AA’s apologist but, to properly assess the situation, we need more information. At what stage of travel were they? What were the flight conditions? Was the seat belt sign illuminated, thus requiring the child to be in a safety seat (and they didn’t have one)? Did the flight attendant have a justified safety concern for the child? At four months, a child cannot steady itself. If the child were to fall and be injured (or worse), what do you suppose the outcome (and PR) would have been for AA. I’ll take the “stern FA” over the alternative. Think about it. We’re all so quick to shake our fingers at someone for doing something.

  4. Anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of physics knows that “lap babies” are in danger. FFS cheap parents, invest in your child’s safety: pay for a seat and put them in an approved child safety seat or harness at all times

  5. Either FA had a bad day or it was due to the infant and safety concerns. I have often placed my laptop case or other material in the empty seat next to me (on the rare occasions there is an empty seat now) while traveling on AA and have never had a FA say anything or even look twice.

  6. It is also possible that the other person in a row of three purchased the extra seat as a +1. Most airlines will allow this. In that case, the empty seat is someone’s paid property!

  7. The safest option is to not even make eye contact with an FA, but if you absolutely have to, just smile and nod. No words. No requests. They seem to generally hate you, so why risk it?

  8. While I have been retired for some time, safety is always paramount. The rule is the seatbelts must be fastened at all times, even if loosely. Placing an object on the empty seat is unacceptable in case of unexpected turbulence. Do you want your infant flying thru the air and becoming a projectile? That is why it is important to keep your belt fastened. If there are empty seats, your FAA approved car seat can be used, how ever to guarantee a seat a ticket must be purchased. I would think dad could have held the infant while mom pumped.

  9. I’ve always used an empty seat for my ‘credenza’. But a little baby should not be left laying on that empty seat without some sort of safety accommodation. Why didn’t the husband hold the baby? Or is this one of those stories written by someone who wasn’t there?

  10. What the FAs should have said is “you need to hold an infant at all times, because unexpected turbulence will send him flying into the cabin and cause serious injury”.

    A few seconds on an empty seat is fine with a parent watching. But no longer.

  11. I don’t think I would place a 4 month old infant on a seat with no restraints – they’re wiggly. Too easy to roll over and fall. If Dad’s hand was on her/him, fine.
    Aside from the safety point, empty seats next to you should be fair game. It just seems ridiculous to do otherwise.

  12. Why didn’t the husband hold him while his wife was pumping? Or was he not there to actually observe anything?

  13. Hate it I luck out with an empty seat next to me, then somebody whose assigned seat it is not, spoils it for me. Even a baby, plus what is with this woman pumping breast milk on a plane anyway?

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