Can You Change to an Open, Empty Seat on a Plane? It Depends on the Airline

United, American, and Southwest take very different approaches to passengers changing seats. On Southwest their boarding process makes it a free for all. American flight attendants are Switzerland. And United’s are the tax man.

When passengers try to change seats on United, the airline’s flight attendants stand on the bridge between seats declaring “none shall pass.” It used to be that passengers could change to any empty seat in the cabin, but now the airline charges extra for some seats in economy and flight attendants are the airline’s revenue protection force.

Last summer I was on a flight that delayed because the last passenger to board wanted to change seats from 24D to the empty 7C in coach. A flight attendant quoted him $63. He initially said he’d pay but then changed his mind.

One flight attendant said to another, “When I go to the car lot to buy and buy a Honda I don’t drive off in a Mercedes just because it was there.” She congratulated herself to her colleague on the analogy, although she may have been the first person ever to compare United Economy Plus to a Mercedes.

Southwest Airlines doesn’t have assigned seats, and they have only one cabin. Some seats are better than others. You’d think that you would need to board super early to get the best seats but most passengers fill up the front of the aircraft first. I find that boarding around 50th, maybe just in the top third, I can get an exit row aisle and since it’s farther back in the aircraft there’s a good shot the middle seat stays empty.

Some passengers save seats for others who are boarding later. And Southwest doesn’t have an official policy on this one way or another. It’s really Lord of the Flies, every passenger for themselves, flight attendants won’t intervene. Or when passengers put fake crumpled up tissues on the middle seat so no one will sit there.

American Airlines leaves it up to flight attendants whether or not to say something when a passenger changes to an empty seat. The policy was not to intervene if a passenger switched to a seat with extra legroom. When the airline started serving free cocktails in extra legroom coach they emphasized that they didn’t expect flight attendants to do extra work on this — but some flight attendants were mad that customers were getting away with something (free booze) that they hadn’t paid for.

When fares are cheap – especially basic economy fares — the better investment is buying a second seat in the cabin which airlines will keep empty next to you.

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. A better analogy would be going to a ball game and moving to a better seat if it remains unoccupied well into the game. And as a practical matter if they did a last minute upgrade and you were in standby, you might get that same seat.

  2. I recently had a chance to travel with Qatar Airlines, I had a business class seat, but because of the lenght of the flight or time of the year, my flight was pretty much empty. So they crew actually asked me if I wanted to move to first class… Well best flight of my life, 12 hours went by I did not feel them. So I guess it all depends on the crew on board.

  3. We were on icelander air and move up one role to an empty emergency row seat . but that was with the flights attendants ok prior to departure.

  4. In this day and age of differential seat pricing and different benefits for select rows, any open switching devalues the product and is a loss of revenue for the airline. American really should make it a policy to forbid moving to empty seats which have an additional cost.

    I find it akin to turnstile jumping on the subway. To argue that the train is going to be going there anyhow as a justification for not paying what others have is a poor argument.

  5. Tried to change to an exit row before takeoff on a nearly empty AA one/hour plus, flight from CVG to Philly. Stopped by flight attendant who apologised saying she was instructed to not allow inflight upgrades. Offered a drink instead.

  6. Was not aware of the policy on AA, the hostess corrected me from the rear of the airplane shrieking at the top of her lungs for me to return to my seat!

  7. On an American flight now. Entire last row empty – we are packed in like sardines. I told my son to move back a row to spread out and attendant shook her head no and waggled her finger at us. It’s the price as the seat we paid for. There is no difference. Just underpaid, overworked crabby attendants.

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