First Class Passengers On American Airlines Can Give Up Their Seat To Whomever They Wish

The Senior Director of Corporate Communications for Borden Dairy was flying American Airlines from Dallas Fort-Worth to Charleston, South Carolina with her CEO. The CEO insisted she take his first class seat. However she reports that an hour into the flight a flight attendant realized she wasn’t the passenger on the manifest. That’s when things got heated.

The American Airlines flight attendant ordered her back to coach. The passenger says this was done citing a “security issue.”

According to Borden Dairy CEO Tony Sarsam, he gave up his seat to his colleague because she had spent the last week in the hospital. Doing this led to a confrontation between the flight attendant and corporate CEO. The flight attendant threated to file an Inflight Disturbance Report. Here’s what one looks like:

The passenger, Adrienne Chance, contacted American Airlines customer relations who replied that the flight attendant was following proper procedure. That seemed reportable – that American had an official policy on changing seats, between cabins, on domestic flights.

It’s an ongoing debate amongst frequent flyers: whose seat is it, anyway? If you have a first class boarding pass you sit in your first class seat. But if you want to give up your first class seat, do you get to choose whom it goes to, or should it go to the next person on the upgrade list?

It was news to me that American had a rule on this, and sided with those who say the seat holder can’t just give up their seat. I reached out to American to confirm it. However a spokesperson though says that passengers “can switch seats – the only policy we have is they shouldn’t switch seats during a meal service.” As a result the customers “did not violate any rules.” American is “following up with the crew and both passengers.”

At American, at least, the first class seat holder can do with their seat as they wish as long as they do not interrupt service flow.

The only downside to this I see is that when a husband always takes the upgrade and leaves his wife in coach he cannot blame the airline and his policies for his selfishness. On the other hand it’s totally acceptable to make someone’s dream of flying up front come true.

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. In the new PC world of equality. Why do women get the first class seat and not the man? Why the wife not the husband ?

  2. Good morning – OK – this is due to FAA and identification process should there be an incident
    And also after 911 – any changing of cabins in prohibited & those who travel know there are
    announcements of flights not to cross cabins.

    Why didn’t this CEO ask to do this before they got on the plane???
    I believe the agent would have been able to accommodate and make these arrangements,

    I think – absolutely – this could and should have been handled differently on both sides –
    the Passengers & the flight crew ..

    There are ways to handle things and ways not to ..

  3. When the “first class” AA seat is worse than coach, do you have to trick someone into taking your “first class” seat? Or can you just go sit in coach?

  4. @Louise – the CEO *did* take care of this before departure. In fact, he spoke to the very same FA that later wrote up the other passenger. Gary was light on the facts.

  5. A simliar situation also happen to me on a recent American flight. A passenger was sitting in my coach assigned seat. He said would you mind sitting in my seat (first class) so I can sit next to a family member. It also got ugly with the flight attendant.

  6. DCA-ORD UA a Congressman in casual attire got huffy when a FA told him he could not give 1A to some random guy in the back who was seated near other Congressman. It was pre-departure and he wasn’t famous. He made a little speech to FA that his constituants didn’t like to see him flying First Class. FA told him to exit plane and speak to agent if he would like to be reseated. He then took his seat in 1A.

  7. I have tried to switch with my Waite and told absolutely NO WAY! Yet I’ve seen couples switching several times with a child during a flight…

  8. This issue is sadly becoming the norm across lots of industries, not just the airlines. Terrible service, coupled with undertrained, frazzled staff that seem to snap on a dime. And the monopoly power of airlines and shield from litigation empower the worst of the worst employees.

    While there are great professional FAs (probably 90%+), there are also a bunch that probably aren’t qualified to have any occupation at all. The FA Union really should step up and weed out its own problem children if they want the public to ever support them in any way.

    When that next recession comes (and it will), there will be no appetite from the public to ever bail out an airline again. They all get liquidated and rightfully so.

  9. This is the problem though. The FA is the police in the sky. Who cares what the policy says if they decide to enforce it how they see it and threaten “are we going to have a problem”? You just have to take it and try to go viral later vs. actually getting an explanation of the law/policy in the moment.

  10. Sounds like another FA who decided to make their own rules. Every airlines has them, but AA has a group of old USAir (maybe even Allegany) FA that need to stop making their own rules. Time for the union to stand up to those who are making them look bad.

    My wife and I fly AA a lot, and have 99% of the time had crew that have been friendly and helpful, but every once and a while we get one of these “sky gods” that think they make the rules. ENOUGH. . . AA shoud just fire their @#$es and fight the union and improve the overall culture and moral of the airlines. Done with a few bad apples that the union keeps employeed bringing everyone else and the company down.

  11. Sounds like another FA who decided to make their own rules. Every airlines has them, but AA has a group of old USAir (maybe even Allegheny) FA that need to stop making their own rules. Time for the union to stand up to those who are making them look bad.

    My wife and I fly AA a lot, and have 99% of the time had crew that have been friendly and helpful, but every once and a while we get one of these “sky gods” that think they make the rules. ENOUGH. . . AA should just fire their @#$es and fight the union and improve the overall culture and moral of the airlines. Done with a few bad apples that the union keeps employed bringing everyone else and the company down.

  12. Even though this is an AA issue, I can say that I have given my United seats in F up on several occasions. Especially out of ORD to the West Coast, to a ‘boot’, just out of Boot camp, that was going home or his next duty station, from Great Lakes Training Center, Kids, like I use to be, in uniform. The FA went back to his seat, and escorted him to the F seat. Always a darn good feeling. Did that more than once.
    One other from OGG to SFO, wife and I gave good friends our F, they had never been in F before. Very surprised friends, and a good feeling for us.
    Not even a blink from the 1st FAs or us sitting in their coach seats.

  13. Back in December, it was all over the news how a Virgin Upper-Class passenger gave up his seat to allow an 88-year-old nurse the change to experience first class. Not only did the FAs support it, but they also took pictures, and even shared it on social media. Which is why it became such a good news story.

    Now imagine this same story but with an FA pulling a power move on an 88-year-old Grandmother and sending her back….

    The irony of watching the safety video where they say “We’re here to make your flight great, cuz great is what we’re going for,” then seeing a fundamental example of the utter contempt for customer service that this AA FA showed would be laughable if it wasn’t so common.

    I feel, particularly with AA, that making flight great is the furthest from anyone’s mind… including the passengers.

  14. I’m a Flight Attendant for another airline, could not care less if someone makes a seat switch. (I just won’t let you switch back and forth between F and C during the flight.) I do like to know what seat you switched with so I know who is where. Some of us are our own worst enemies.

  15. So glad AA shut me down so I won’t be tempted to subject myself to their cramped uncomfortable seats and crotchety old FAs.

    @Ryan:. Agreed! They want to have their cake and eat it too. American women are the worst. Enjoy your loneliness, ladies.

  16. @Annette: So you’re making up your own rules. Sort of the point here.
    I don’t suppose my usual response would go over well with the FA:

    “Look , I’m going to give you a break here and assume you’re to just trying to intentionally insult me, because the only alternative is you just really are that stupid”

  17. The FA wouldn’t have said a word had the seat been community traded to a uniformed military passenger.

  18. This is why God invented Southwest. And Delta.

    You guys who think the FA union is ever going to do anything about these worthless malcontents are living in a dream world.

  19. Story time…

    On a coach ticket from MEX to DFW, I was approached by another passenger shortly before the end of the boarding process claiming I was in his seat, and he was right!

    Just behind him was the gate agent with my upgrade (I’d been first on the list but not processed before boarding). Unfortunately, my gf and I had rochambo’d in the lounge to see who’d get the seat if the upgrade came through, and I’d lost. We negotiated the adjustment there in the aisle with the gate agent, who was happy to send her to first while I remained in coach.

    What I’d neglected to consider, though, was that it was my aisle seat that had been upgraded and not my gf’s middle seat, so she strolled off to first and I squeezed myself into the middle while my new seatmate took my old seat. Rookie mistake…

  20. When I have given up an F seat, I always ask the gate agent. Usually they swap boarding passes. I always understood this was the way to do it properly, though I’m not sure why I think that.

  21. @Too Much Flying

    “While there are great professional FAs (probably 90%+)”

    Why the fluff? Maybe in Europe and with Asian and Rich Middle East airlines flight attendants are on average great professionals but not here. Demographics of those getting these jobs are often terrible. In Europe you have young people in their 20s and early 30s who are full of energy. By 35 they move into other careers geared toward raising a family. Maybe a 45 year old pursuer but that is it. In the U.S. we have 70 year old flight attendants and middle aged people who are 15 years from their best energetic self. The unions guarantee poor service while in Europe it is a matter of pride for employees to not want to embarrass themselves. Even in non unioned airlines its the same people who get these jobs and why flight attendants tend to be on average marginal.

  22. I’m not sure the characterisation of one taking coach and another passenger (in this case a man and wife) taking a first class seat an act of “selfishness”. A lot of times it’s pure circumstance why this is the case. If it’s an award seat it could be availability of mileage slots in that particular flight. For paid seats it can be financial constraints or one party could be handicapped as well.
    Just my two cents worth.

  23. If you have a seat in F and want to trade with someone in coach you certainly should be able to do so. The upgrade list is completely irrelevant. The people on the upgrade list aren’t getting that seat anyway because if the person in F couldn’t switch seats they are certainly not going to give up the seat in F for someone on an upgrade list.

  24. A number of years ago, my wife and I gave our seats in F to the parents of our best friends who happened to be on the same Alaska transcon flight. They had never flown up front before and their delight and appreciation made us feel absolutely wonderful. At the husband’s funeral a couple of weeks ago, their son told us how much it meant to them over the years and we were able to feel good all over again.

  25. When a husband always takes the upgrade and leaves his wife in coach he cannot blame the airline.

    ERA – Section 1. Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.

    When men HAVE to put women ahead just because they are a women, then women will NEVER be EQUAL, they will be the SECOND CLASS. It is only when a person puts others before themselves is it makes them better.

    I hold a door for a man just as I would a women.

  26. Husbands don’t *have* to give up their upgrade because the wife is a woman, but they themselves get to enjoy upgrades when flying solo. If the spouse does not travel much, it is a lovely gallant thing to give your spouse first class. And selfish not to unless husband for some physical or medical reason needs a larger seat. Likewise if the roles are reversed.

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