What Do You Do When Someone is Invading Your Space on a Plane?

The Chicago Tribune asked me how to deal with someone invading your space on a plane. They wanted to know, “Should you say something to the person or to the flight attendant?”

I thought this was actually a hard question. With planes generally full there aren’t very many options, and I don’t think I had a silver bullet solution to offer so I’d love thoughts on the best way to handle it when the passenger next to you is encroaching your space?

Here’s what I suggested to the Tribune:

    The first thing to do is assess the situation. If there’s an empty seat in your section of the plane, discreetly ask the flight attendant if you can move.

    If there’s no other seat available, ask yourself whether your seatmate can reasonably do anything about the situation. Is he encroaching on your space because he’s larger than the seat ?

    There’s probably not a whole lot you can do. In that case it’s going to be a long flight, so just try to revel in the miracle of modern aviation.

    On the other hand, if your seatmate could easily take up less space, try to start a polite conversation and mention that you’d appreciate some of the armrest.

    The only time to enlist the help of the flight attendant is as a last resort. A flight attendant isn’t going to stay by your seat through the flight to monitor your seatmate’s behavior. But if the person is clearly abusive, getting it on record with the crew can be a prophylactic measure.

Ultimately we need to be courteous to fellow passengers, we’re all in this together. But when your seat mate isn’t courteous to you — when you’re packed in tight, and someone is using your space — what do you do?

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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. accidentally bump into their drink and spill it on their laptop while farting loudly

  2. If an airline doesn’t have specific armrest rules, then it’s first come first serve…. claim your space, but if you get beat to it, just wait like a jungle predator and jam your arm up there as soon as the other person moves it.

    Tricking the person to move it so you can get in there is also fair game.

  3. I do not have to accommodate you being too fat to fit in your seat. Continue to commit battery against me and I will defend myself accordingly.

  4. If an obese person does not care about their own body, do you think they will care about anything else? I have and will continue to speak up. If they are on Southwest they should be buying two seats. Why do I have to suffer due to their carelessness?

  5. Oh reminds me of that wonderful 5 hour flight when the guy sitting in middle had a bigger ass than his whole seat…smelled like he just came out of a slaughterhouse, and had the nerve to complain to FA about not accommodating him an aisle seat even though he purchased the ticket months ahead of time…I felt so dirty when I arrived at hotel I cried in shower…

  6. Start out by wearing long sleeve shirts. Then at least your bar skin isn’t touching their bare skin. Yuck.

  7. When does the airline take responsibility for putting people in this situation? The fact of the matter is that folks are getting larger and airline seats seem not to be changing much (or even getting tighter together). Logically, we would expect more unhappy interactions.

    I know that airlines would like us all to pay more for their services, including basics such as sufficient legroom. But, they should not be surprised when more altercations break out. Nor should they be surprised when government steps in with regulations to help us all get along, just like traffic lights and road rules help smooth out that form of transportation.

  8. Being fat is not being abusive. Let’s be a little more compassionate. Fat people aren’t fat because they want to be fat. I think what he’s referring to is people who clearly invade your space for no particular reason by spreading out as if they’re on their couch at home. Had it happened to me twice, where the person next to me went past the armrest and stretched his arms into my space and burying their elbow near my stomach. A simple “would you mind giving me a bit more space?” worked just fine both times.

  9. Not everyone that is too large for the seat is fat. Some (like myself) have broad chests and shoulders. I’m physically wider than the seat. No amount of dieting is going to make my bones more narrow. I usually end up with some combination of turning sideways and hunching my shoulders to avoid touching strangers. I also exclusively fly business or first class on flights longer than a few hours b/c I can only hold that position so long. I’m less sympathetic to large people (fat or otherwise) who feel entitled to your space. Also, I’ve learned that picking the exit row for more room only makes sense if you are tall. Your rowmates are almost guaranteed to be large.

  10. I find it is really an issue for me when they want to raise the armrest “to get more comfortable”.
    Then , clearly, they move onto my seat and seatback. No thank you. Armrest remains down.
    Armrests are more ambiguous. I simply indicate that the armrest that has my recline control seems to be “mine”. Open to sharing but, when the middle claims both armrests as his domain, that is too much.

  11. It’s very important to keep in mind that all of us travel on different sized planes, and many of the latest planes, *especially those of discount carriers* are much more concerned about more dollars per seat earned than our comfort. So, what do they do? they shrink seat sizes as well as foot rest areas. I’m an average frame 5’8″ and a couple of my flights last year on a discount carrier had much smaller seats than a larger global air carrier.
    To top it off, the seat rests were half as wide as my own arm.
    So, its not all our fault. The newer planes are getting more space efficient for the sake of airline business, not our comfort. The footrest area was so short that there was no way I could even stow a small backpack underneath.

  12. Well it does work, except the fart is probably not necessary:
    “asdfasdfas says:
    August 26, 2016 at 8:30 am
    accidentally bump into their drink and spill it on their laptop while farting loudly”
    I was flying in Biz on PanAm and I was asleep in the center 2 biz seats on a 747. This pretty young lady from the up-front biz section woke me up as she had to move some of my stuff to sit down next to me to watch the movie – even though there were many other empty seats in the same area. SO – what to do? Simple, as the earlier person suggested, I “accidentally” pushed MY open can of Coke and its glass over into her lap. She was gone in a second!
    Another time, lady in Econ on a EWR > ORD flight DC-10 left 2 seats – kept pushing her leg into mine. and I nicely asked her several times to keep her own space – till she got up and moved. In 55 countries and millions of miles of travel, those are the only 2 problems I’ve had. Lucky.

  13. Just remember a uniformed representative of the federal government has already certified them weapon-free, so you got that going for yourself.

  14. Why everyone except Bill jumps to the idea that overweight people are solely to blame is beyond me. I was just in the middle seat of a new AA 787-800 for an 11-hour flight (SWU didn’t come through – I got what I paid for in the end) and all three of us were able to fit our butts easily into our seats. The problem was arms – while 17-18 inches is the width of the seat, it was significantly less than the breadth of our shoulders. Unless the pax in the window seat was actively leaning as far into the window as possible, and the pax in the aisle seat was doing the same (and thus getting hit by anything passing by), we were a cramped, uncomfortable threesome and none of us got any semblance of sleep or even rest during the flight. It was a bulkhead row with extra legroom, but that doesn’t count for much when you’re contorted into unnatural positions.

    All of us did what we could to be good to the others, even discussing how we could all make the most of it, but the physical limitations of the seats were to blame. Until we can hold the airlines accountable for putting profit over comfort, this situation is here to stay.

    Saying that we should just pay more to make sure we’re in J/F is a nice platitude, but not everyone who travels frequently is wealthy or traveling on OPM. While I admitted above that I got what I paid for, why should economy be accepted as inadequate just because it’s cheap?

    That said, AA’s venture into Premium Economy – following the lead of many other international carriers – is a welcome addition, as it represents an affordable-to-more way to get out of the shrinking Y seats in a few cases.

  15. I travel more than most. Still, I have only had two occasions where people were so fat that they were actually touching me. One was a woman who put the armrest up before sitting down. I mentioned it but she said she could not get in with the armrest down. Since I believe it is a safety requirement on take-off and landing, I considered mentioning it to the flight attendant. Being the nice person that I am I just lived with it. In the other case with a man, I decided I would be more comfortable standing in the back of the plane. The flight attendants were great. The made a seat for me out of a storage drawer and a headrest as a seat. I was actually more comfortable than in the airline seat – unlimited legroom. They told my seatmate that I would not be back until landing and he can raise the armrest and have two seats. He was so grateful. Really, I know it is expensive but people like this should bite the bullet and buy a business class seat. I wish more airlines would take the Southwest Airlines tact of forcing them to buy two seats – although I would not want to be person that has to tell them that they are too fat for one seat.

  16. my advice:

    keep the armrest down, and insist that it stays down. don’t explain why (that leads to needless bargaining) – just say “i need to keep the armrest down.” if the other passenger won’t fit, then tell them to talk to the FA. don’t try to resolve it yourself.

    the armrest issue doesn’t solve problems with broad-shouldered people, but i have never encountered a broad-shouldered person who (1) was not aware they were encroaching on others’ space and (2) didn’t everything they could to avoid burdening other pax.

    granted, i’ve never boarded late enough to find a POS encroaching on my seat already, and i can’t put the armrest down myself. in that situation, i’d probably go to the FA directly.

  17. And a tag-on to my comment – the only other seats available were middles, as well. High yields are also killing the ability to move to better seats in many cases.

  18. I was disappointed with many of the comments. It’s usually easier to change your perceptions about or reactions to a situation or person than it is to change the situation or person. This is especially true in an airline seat. Here are my ideas:

    1. Distract yourself: Pamper yourself with purchased cocktails, snacks, wifi, inflight movie. The time will go by surprisingly quickly if you have pleasant diversions that take your mind and attention away from the problem. This is especially effective if you don’t purchase these things normally.

    2. Prevent: Become a better student of Gary Leff’s teachings about accumulating miles and points more quickly, and spending them more shrewdly, so that next time you will be in Business Class or First Class.

    3. Check out: Carry a neck pillow, a Xanax, and an Ambien or Soma so you can go to another place for the duration of the flight.

    4. Check yourself: Anybody can put up with anything if they know it is going to end at a specific time. Fortunately, on an airline flight, you do!

  19. I’m small. The empty space around me seems to be a magnet for large guys. Numerous times I have been encroached on. I don’t care about the armrests, but going beyond the armrest or sprawling into my leg space is not ok.
    I have used a pillow to separate myself from an encroacher, and I have politely said that the guy could have the arm rest but please don’t go beyond. Nothing has been entirely successful. I have had a guy fall asleep on my shoulder after drinking several shots of booze; waking him resulted in only temporary relief, until he fell asleep again. On a full, 16-hour flight, a very large guy tried to stay in his space. Eventually he said Ma’am, I just can’t. And he sprawled into my space and fell asleep. For several hours I was jammed and twisted uncomfortably against the side of my seat. I’m lucky to have no serious physical conditions. Otherwise I could have been in trouble.
    Most travelers know that airline seats are small. Many of us do fit (at least, we fit if we actually get our space). If you know you won’t fit, then pay for 2 seats. Don’t expect me to give up the modicum of space that I paid for.

  20. At 6-8 tall I run into this from time to time when stuck in coach. My legs will lock up when they are stuck in the same position so I have to constantly adjust myself on the flight. Sometimes the legs flare to the sides to get more comfortable. A lot of times I am too wide for the seat but I try to minimize my footprint so I’m not encroaching anyone. I try hard for the exit rows because they have the fixed partitions between seats that helps keep encroachment from happening.

  21. I was thinking about this subject the other day. I have been in economy and had 400 lb men sitting next to me and pushing me out into the aisle, as they were in the middle. One time, my back was in constant pain for 3 days afterwards. I vowed never to sit back there again or I just would not travel.

    If it bugs you that much, and it should, try buying 2 coach seats yourself, if they are affordable. Sometimes the airlines will give you a deal to buy the “extra seat’. I did that on my trip to Iceland on WOW air earlier this year so no one would sit in-between me and my 12 yr old nephew. It was worth every penny. I also did it on a trip to Alaska, when I was traveling along. The amusing part of the WOW airline trip was that the flight attendants could not reconcile the passenger count with the seat occupancy until I spoke up and told them I had paid for it. They looked at me strangely for half a second and then told me it was brilliant. And it was.

    But most of the time I buy first or business class if it is equal to 2 coach seats. As people are getting bigger and bigger, you have to look out for yourself anyway you can.

  22. Depending on the situation – deal with it directly, do nothing, or tell the FA:

    On an overnight from Lagos to LHR the very fit man next to me took the armrest (OK) and kept pushing his arm into my arm (not OK). I was trying to sleep. After about the third time, I picked up my eyeshades, looked at him and said very firmly “Please don’t touch me again. I’m hot, I’m tired, and I just want to sleep.” I put the eyeshades on, leaned back and slept undisturbed for the rest of the flight. Needless to say, there was no small talk at the end of the flight….

    On another flight on BA from LHR to Abuja, I was flying BA in seat C and a colleague was in A. Then a very plus sized woman, complete with an overcoat, flew BOAC. She was in B and spilled Over into A and C. Nothing she could do about it, so I leaned right and my colleague leaned left and we just made the best of it. The woman was very sweet. I think she was far more uncomfortable than I was. She tried her best to stay in her space.

    Another time when I was flying BA from Doha to LHR, I looked across the plane and saw a man pointing his finger at and yelling at two of my female colleagues. I told the FA on my side that the man was harassing my friends. His response was “I got it mate”. In just a few moments there were three male FA’s in the guy’s face and making sure everything was OK with my friends. He didn’t bother them again and he was in the middle seat between them.

  23. Just a bunch of useless comments up there.
    I fly up front to avoid others from even breathing into my space.
    Problem solved.

  24. If it is obvious that the person isn’t maintaining their space or even making an effort.
    -Fake an itch and keep fake scratching
    -If you’re male and so is he, act gay and hope he is a homophobe. Squeeze into the conversation that you . Probably not good to do if you are female and he is male.

  25. Doug is wrong. 1/2 of the arm rest is mine, and it doesn’t matter when I board the plane.

    If you don’t touch me, I won’t touch you. If you impinge on my space, I’ll it my arms by my sides then breathe in hard, shoving my elbow into your.

    I have broad shoulders, so I normally keep my arms forward. But I don’t waste politeness on the impolite

  26. Wow! I didn’t realize so many 10 year old boys were frequent flyers! What a bunch of childish answers. Farting? Spilling drinks? How about a little bit of compromise or maybe those of you who don’t seem to be able to do that, pay the extra $$$ for the seats up front! Obviously all of you have the perfect size body! I’m a small person who travels frequently both in and out of the country and have never run across anyone who wasn’t willing to share space. Headphones and sleep aids – deal with it!

  27. wow…so it’s my fault that I have to pay extra money for the first class seats when the space I purchased has been violated? I’m a big guy as well, but I will make sure to choose my seat ahead of time so I can get my aisle seat to lean toward the lateral side or if I can’t avoid it, I will pay to get upgraded. It’s those who purposely knowing that they’re gonna cause problems for others and still decide to check in last minute and stuck in middle seat that are the problem.
    And Donna, based on your logic, it’s like saying that it’s the rape victims fault that they got raped because they’re not willing to compromise and put on their headphone and sleep aid when their body or right is being violated? If those rape victims are willing to spend some extra money to buy a gun or a knife, then they will be safe from the violation?

  28. Years ago I flew coach exclusively and always chose aisle seats.
    The plane was almost fully boarded. No one was in either seat next to me.
    Down the aisle walked a HUGE man who proceeded to sit in my row by the window. Whew! Dodged a bullet, or so I thought.
    Next came a HUGE woman and…yeah, you know the rest. I ended up flying 6 hours with half my kister in the aisle. The plane was full and the FAs could/would not do anything for me.
    I now know better
    (meaning my rights especially from reading travel blogs). I will not shy away from voicing my displeasue or concerns. Also, I learned to pay up for first to end the abuses of coach.

  29. I was once stuck on a flight with a giant blimp of a man that overflowed over the armrests into my seat. I didn’t say a word, just stuck my elbow into his side the entire trip. As uncomfortable as it was for me, it must have been worse for him. People need to push back on other people that encroach their space.

  30. I ask the FA if there is an available,
    comprable seat that provides me with the space I’m entitled to because I’ve paid for it. Referencing the FA’s first name will help later.

    Still dissatisfied? Calmly and nicely write customer relations describing the grievance and your attempt to remedy it. Then ask for compensation without mentioning a dollar amount. I find they are willing to positively respond if I preface my complaint with a compliment saying how much I have previously enjoyed their service.

  31. I am very sorry if you are obese because of an illness but I paid for ALL of my seat. I do not look ill but I am in constant pain from a serious motorcycle accident and a debilitating bone disease and cannot sit twisted or pushed. If you buy a drink on the plane should I expect to get half of it just because I am thirsty? What I pay for is mine and I share it ONLY if I choose to whether it be my beverage or my seat space.

  32. I love all these people who want to say it’s not a fat issue it’s an issue of broad shoulders or wide hips. Please. I’ve flown more times than i can count and sat next to every kind of person imaginable and can count on one hand the number of times I’ve sat next to someone so fat they literally spilled over onto my seat with their girth. And I was pissed. I spent just as much money on my seat that they did yet I was in total hell for the entire five hour flight while Jabba the Hut and his girlfriend/wife (who elected to take the window seat and put her giant friend in the middle can you believe that?) ate everything they could get their hands on (also a pet peeve). Yes the seats are too small but the question was how do you deal with someone invading your space. Unless you’re a giant fat slob, that typically doesnt happen. Yes it’s uncomfortable, but not invasive.

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