Are You Entitled to Change to an Open, Empty Seat on a Plane?

Yesterday I flew United and we were delayed a few minutes by a passenger who wanted to self-upgrade.. from one economy seat to another.

This was the last passenger to board, he wasn’t taking someone else’s seat. He wasn’t ticketed in economy and trying to move to an open first class seat, he was ticketed in economy and trying to sit in economy. He was moving around inside his ticketed cabin.

Of course, he was moving to a seat that costs more money. 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.

Extra legroom seating in the front of the plane isn’t a separate cabin. There are no curtains or barriers. But what if the extra legroom seating was just an exit row seat in the back of economy?

Back in April, a few days after a doctor was dragged off a United flight and bloodied, a honeymoon couple was removed from a flight after trying to move into empty exit row seats.

When I was a kid I used to ask for bulkhead seats and if I was lucky I’d get them. There didn’t used to be an extra charge. In my younger days if there were several open seats on a plane I’d move. More than once I flew to Australia in coach and stretched out in an entire empty row of middle seats.

It was a common social norm, I think, that you could change from your assigned seat in your ticketed cabin to another unoccupied seat if you wished. Now that airlines charge for seat assignments, they no longer want you to do this. But do regular flyers know? Should they? And is that a reasonable policy?

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. Why should the notion that a passenger who paid less for an economy seat not be permitted to move to a seat that cost more? We all know that the price of seats varies with the time one buys a ticket. I may pay $159 for my ticket; you may sit next to me and have paid more then $200.

    Now, in the given case, which appears to concern premium economy and plain economy, I wonder if the passenger had waited until the plane was in the air and had asked an FA how he might move to the seat he wanted, he might have been accommodated, especially if asked for the FA’s help. He might have been turned down, especially if the FA was determined to enforce the price differential between the two seat locations. This, however, is a case when one should ask before acting and not apologize afterward.

    On more than one flight I’ve moved from steerage economy to premium economy after asking an FA if I might do so. As I’m not a member of any loyalty plan, my appearance and how I asked may have played a role. I should note that on one trans-Atlantic flight there were few empty seats and the FA still okeyed my move.

  2. @Greg Yes, you nailed the basic problem succinctly.

    Also, if you pay for a premium seat (i.e. More Room) and don’t get it due to an ac change, you’re entitled to a refund. Just happened to my wife this weekend, with an AA flight changed from an A321 to a 737. Put in for a refund on website and not only got refunded for flight where downgrade happened, but also for the outbound. I’ll call that a win.

  3. Gary is this a travel site or one for political commentary? I have no interest in political commentary, an outside issue, on this blog. Nor from my doctor, barista, etc.

  4. Bigoted, ad hoc political attacks seem off topic to me (see the comments below);
    “Greg says:
    June 4, 2017 at 3:58 pm
    What you commoners don’t understand is that when we gave all extra income to the 1% instead of raises for the middle class, we didn’t intend for the rest of you to try to poach our gains. You need to know your place which is in the slightly angled backboards where our friends in the airline clubs have warehoused you for the flight.

    I’d also like to take this opportunity to thank our friends in the red states for 30 years of voting only for the policies of the 1% because the GOP laced them with enough red button bigot issues to entice you to waddle down to the polls and vote away your entire class….

  5. “This, however, is a case when one should ask before acting and not apologize afterward.”

    Agreed. Ask politely, be apologetic and sincere and chances are you’ll get that seat. But not on JetBlue — don’t even ask.

  6. Premium economy might not be a physically separate cabin, but it is absolutely a separate class.. on some carriers, it even includes things like complementary alcohol and food. But regardless, leg room is an amenity that airlines sell, and is the selling point of premium economy. United’s terminology refers to these as upgrades, and even sells them as upgrades (as you note, the $63).

    As such, not sure what the confusion would be here… it’s a de facto self-upgrade.

  7. Yes, sorry I wasn’t clear earlier, Gary. I guess there’s not much you can do about idiotic comments except delete them as you see fit. Thanks for your blog, though, I enjoy.

  8. We just flew Iceland Air KEF to BOS in a 2-3-2 configuration We were 21 DE Row 19 DE were empty (Emergency row seating with LOTS OF LEG ROOM!!!!!!!!) . Asked the FA if we could move after the door closed and she said we could. Asked if we could now before we pushed back and she said yes. We were polite about it the entire time!! And said THANK YOU.

  9. You want to move from 1 Economy seat to another? You want to move from your middle seat to an empty aisle /window?

    No problem.

    You want to move from Economy to Economy Plus / Economy Comfort / Premium Economy / whatever the name is that means “not just Economy”?

    You have to pay.

    This is not brain surgery, or rocket science

  10. I remember being on a United regional flight with only 2-3 other passengers.

    Upon boarding, the flight attendant cheerfully told us to feel free to sit wherever we wished.

    On a separate note, I’m not sure the common person can tell a premium economy seat apart from an economy seat.

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