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. On Southwest, you are always free to move about the cabin. If someone is trying to save the seat, the more aggressive person wins, up to the point where one or both are ejected from the flight by the crew.

  2. I once had someone move up to an empty exit row except for me on an El Al flight and they were kindly escorted right back to their assigned seat.

    Empty premium seats should be given to flyers with status first if they are unoccupied or they should stay unoccupied.

  3. It kinda sucks if you are in 7A and paid the extra $63, don’t you think? Fairness, ethics, morals in our new normal of nickel and diming –versus the good ‘ole days.

  4. 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. It was so cute how you thought you would be rich some day too or were already rich at $50,000 household income. If it weren’t for you, we in the 1% might have had to share some of the economic gains instead of having them all come to us.

    Remember to keep hating on the Democratic party, that unions are bad because they enforce high wages, and it’s the colored people who are getting everything instead of you, Buford. And thanks again!

  5. Status (or ticket upcharges) give passengers extra legroom. It is not simply moving within a ticketed cabin. Economy Plus seats have clear signage to differentiate them – either at the front of the cabin or in an Exit Row towards the rear. It’s not fair to the passengers who qualify for Economy Plus to find the passenger sitting beside them has self-upgraded. You can draw an infinite number of comparisons: sports stadiums, concert venues, hotel rooms with better views. People pay premiums to derive extra benefits and the benefits are clearly defined by the seller.

  6. @BZApf – why, nothing has been taken away from you? You paid an assured yourself of that seat.

    Does is kinda suck for a business class passenger flying Los Angeles – London when someone is upgraded on the day of departure at the airport for free because coach was oversold?

  7. Always move after door closes. Just tell the flight waitress “gate agent told me two take these seats”….

    Good luck checkin

  8. Flight attendants probably already had a deal with another passenger to move them there once door was closed. Maybe even nonrevs. But keep pluckin that chicken, jerry.

  9. Is there anything in United’s ToS that prohibits pax from moving to a different/unoccupied seat? (You didn’t really answer the question you posed in your headline.)

  10. Was he moving from a economy seat to another economy seat, or was he moving from economy to economy plus? If he was moving from economy to economy plus, do you think it’s ok for him to do so? I absolutely believe that United is within its right to ask for additional payment for the additional class of service.

  11. In my experience, as long as the same class (economy and premium economy clearly different class), nobody cares. Is the FA explicitly requested that man to move or just throwing insult? If it was the latter, it shows the quality of FA.

    If I were that passenger, I would pretend to know my seatmate and tell the following story, loudly: “I have a friend who like to boast her successful career in her brand new Mercedes. She likes to mock our friend who can only buy a Honda. When she showed the interior of her Mercedes, we found a sticker, apparently it was a rental car. Funny how stupid and poor people show offs.” Off course, I only did it after take off.

  12. I don’t see the problem if you stay in the same section. Why should I stay crammed in the middle seat for 5 hours if the row next to me is empty?

  13. Gary, you are better than this. The FA is 100% right. Fairness. This douche should be banned from UA for life. I wouldn’t want him flying on my airline.

  14. 1. You absolutely cannot move around before the door closes – there may be stragglers and you will likely mess up the passenger count.

    2. If you want to move when the door closes, ask an FA first.

    3. Likewise at any other time.

    4. If it’s a seat for which you would have had to pay more, expect to be denied.

    5. Behave with common courtesy, not selfishness and self-entitlement.

    6. @ Greg, this has nothing to do with how you vote – most things don’t – so stop frothing at the mouth and rejoin the human race.

  15. @garyleff: Just sayIng, you paid for seat 95E, so accept what you paid for. If the airline decides to upgrade you, then the Luck ‘O the Irish be with you. It was the airline’s decision, not yours.

  16. I’ve heard a number of times on Alaska Air flights (and only on Alaska) the following announcement…..”Please do not move your seat because of “weight balance” inside of the plane.”

    I’ve always thought it was just nonsense….but maybe it works in helping to prevent people from moving their seat locations.

  17. UA Prem Economy paid online upgrade seat sells for different amounts. Aisles cost more than center seats for example.

  18. No, you are not. Despite the ultra-self absorbed, post-modern society’s “Me First” and “me me me now now now” culture, you are absolutely not entitled to change seats to an empty seat. You are no m ore entitled to take that than you are another person’s luggage just because they didn’t claim it.

    Why? Simple, it isn’t your seat. It belongs to someone else. You didn’t pay for it, the airline did. It may also be kept empty for upgrading:

    * Pregnant women
    * Handicapped people
    * Elderly passengers
    * Small children or the mentally disabled

    This is something that bothers me about Americans, it’s the whole selfishness thing. Everyone thinks they’re entitled to an upgrade, and the use of the word is telling. The real word in the title should be “self-entitled”. And the answer to the social media narcissists is, no you are not entitled. And neither is your shockingly offensive, stupid, uneducated leader Donald Trump.

  19. “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.”

    — I”m lost

  20. I fly United because as a Mileage Plus member I can upgrade free, 24 hrs out to economy plus seats. But more importantly, I board in groupe #2, which means I have room for my backpack in the overhead. Like everything else in life, “you get what you pay for”.

  21. What happens when an airline doesn’t give you the seat you paid for. Suppod9m you paid $50 for 12C but because of a delay you missed your flight and they re-accommodate you on the next flight in 32E. Or they swap aircraft and its now a 318 instead and your seat doesn’t exist. What compensation does the airli e give you except tell you they gor you there safely in the same cabin you booked. Even though you may have paid morw for the specific plane/time/seat

  22. Obviously, there is no entitlement to move to a different seat. Every airline can enforce whatever policy it wants. When a certain section has special features (like extra legroom in economy plus) that the airline charges more money for, it is entirely reasonable for the airline to insist on you sitting in the section you paid for. I see no real difference whether these seats are separated by a curtain or other device.

    Obviously, it never hurts to ask. And if you’re feeling bold, I guess you could try to plop down in an economy plus seat (enduring the dirty looks from the passengers actually entitled to sit in that section). But if the flight attendant tells you to go back to your assigned seat, you do so.

  23. 7D is an economy plus seat. Different than economy. FA was right – and Gary knows it.

    This blog is going downhill.

  24. They may have been saving the empty seat for an elderly or disabled passenger. FA was right, these policies exist for a reason. Passenger acted in a self-entitled manner

  25. In all the previous comments, no one suggested that the passenger ask the flight attendant for permission. Chances are one might have said yes.

  26. Come on this is RIDICULOUS. UAL monetizes every economy plus seat. They are NEVER free. Even when they are ALL empty. I know, I sit there and watch. Watch the FA’s say “DON’T THINK ABOUT IT UNLESS YOU ARE GOING TO PAY.”
    That’s the rule. They are unbending. Economy plus IS a different fare class – just like first class is different than business. Gary is full of sh*t to suggest otherwise – and yes EVERYONE knows this. They try to sell them outside, inside, announce it, etc. You’d have to be a moron not to know this (and yes, there are plenty of morons, but still).

  27. Greg makes an excellent point: what if the reverse happens, that you pay for an E+ seat, your flight is cancelled or goes mx, and you are out on another flight, but this time in E, lower than the class you paid for? Do you have any recourse?

  28. I’m not sure the point of this article. He is trying to move from one seat to another seat that costs more money. Why should he be entitled to do that over everyone else in economy? Why should he be able to decide on his own that he is doing that? I could understand an argument if he was seated in a row next to someone and the next row over with tickets of the same price are totally open and then he asked the FA, but that is not what happened here. He is trying to take a seat he did not pay for. I’ve been in the situation where I was seated in economy plus and the seat next to me was open. Someone tried to move into that seat without paying for it and was crowding me on the armrest. Thankfully the FA got rid of them. Why should I have to sit next to someone who didn’t even pay for the seat next to me? If you want the extra room then pay for it. End of story.

  29. People do not pay the same for comparable seats, not with all the discount vendors online. Especially if you consider the timing when people bought their ticket. Your seat neighbor may have paid twice what you did for their seat. So saying that you have to pay more for a better seat is pretty arbitrary. The airline is not going to go down a list and ask people if they want a better seat, if you see an opportunity to get a better seat you have to take the initiative yourself and ask.

  30. Qantas will tell you to remain in your assigned seat until the aircraft has reached a point where the fasten seatbelt sign has been turned off (load balancing) but usually thereafter the crew will announce that you are free to move about your assigned cabin but must return to your previously assigned seat prior to landing. Seems simple and fair enough to me.

  31. @William – they weren’t ‘saving the empty seat for an elderly or disabled passenger’ every other passenger was already onboard.

  32. I’m not sure why some commenters are concluding I was siding with the passenger, I just thought it raises interesting questions about the changing norms of travel.

  33. Greg – best comment by far! To ignore it, you are either a 1% and do not care for struggling people or continue to believe in alternative facts. Free market capitalism until it does not work for some corporation / lobbying group. Let’s thank special interests and Citizens United decision for best democracy that money can buy.

  34. @garyleff everyone is assuming that you are siding with the passenger because of the way that you titled and wrote the article. You said “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.” While that is technically true, he was trying to move from a regular economy seat to an economy plus seat. If you had titled the article “Is it OK to move from Economy to an open Economy Plus seat?” that would have been a more accurate description of the issue, and people would not think you are biased in favor of the passenger.

  35. I agree that charging for seating within the same cabin does change the dynamic of moving about the cabin to empty seats. The airline can only consistently attract upcharges for nicer seats if it can prevent people from grabbing them for free. I think this is another situation where politely asking the FA before doing it yourself would have saved a lot of grief.

    In a sense, it’s like leaving first class seats empty — at first glance, it might seem stupid when the airline could generate either revenue or goodwill from upgrades, but it also protects the revenue they might get in the future by cultivating an elite product.

    To those who ask what happens if you pay for a nicer seat and get bumped to another flight, the airline refunds you the seat charge.

  36. All of this could have been avoided if the passenger had only followed instructions. Sit in in the seat you bought.

  37. I see the angry left is still subscribing to the mythology of the GOP voter and cannot get over the rejection of their socialist agenda.

  38. IMO if you did not pay for the better seat and the FA or TA did not upgrade you then stay put. I once asked on a near empty flight if my wife and I could move to Premium economy seats, we had flown a redeye from TLV to Kennedy and shuttled over to LaGuardia and were now going to CVG, I told the FA that and wanted the extra leg room to stretch out and close my eyes, and the FA politely said sorry…

    I thought to myself wow that is being strict what would it hurt, I was DL – FF at the time, I have made this trip twice with you DL in the last 4 months, this time with my wife, but I did not pay for it even though the plane is almost empty, I did not fight it. I just said next time I will watch what is available more carefully on my phone APP before boarding and see if I can get the TA or GA to upgrade me. In flight is not the time to be doing these things.

    Bottom line, do not self upgrade, ask, if they say no, no means no, be an adult and accept the fact you did not pay for it and if they don’t want to give it to you, its not yours.

  39. On AA, many coach passengers paying the lowest tier fare, without status, and who do not pay extra for economy plus seating, do not receive seat assignments until shortly before boarding.These passengers get whatever seats are left, and typically, they are economy plus seats which are unsold. These passengers are receiving an “upgrade” from cattle car coach to economy plus coach, while other coach passengers may have paid more for their tickets, and should be “more worthy” of this “upgrade.” I end up with these low end passengers sitting next to me, and they are almost always someone I would not choose for a seatmate. The gate agents need to pay more attention to the people they are “upgrading.” On my last flight, a middle-eastern 20-something man, who was talking on his cell phone in arabic, was seated at the last minute in the middle seat of the exit row next to me. When the FA came to ask if we were willing and able to open the emergency exit, the man continued to talk on the phone and the FA was in earshot. Before the flight took off, he said what appeared to be a prayer in arabic. I was nervous the entire flight. Enough of being politically correct. The gate agent should have profiled this person, and not put him in an exit row, where, had he been up to no good, would have provided him with unencumbered movement. The FA should have attempted to re-seat him. I know gate agents are in a rush to get passengers without seat assignments a seat, but they need to be more selective.

  40. Greg, omly Trump supporters like KL above will ignore you, as will all Trump’s white supremacists Glad you speak truth.

  41. Tim above supports the White Supremacist hope he never sits next to me. I hate white supremacists

  42. As long as you are really moving within the same class of service I don’t think the flight attendants mind if you ask/tell them what you are going to do. Two weeks ago I flew standby on an American flight. I was given a seat in the last row next to two other people. The three seats on the other side of the aisle were open and after boarding was complete I told the flight attendant that I was going to switch to the other side of the aisle and she told me she didn’t care.

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