Sometimes It’s Better To Just Say No When Other Passengers Ask To Switch Seats

Some passengers simply will not change seats when asked, and that is ok. One woman absolutely won’t change seats, unless it is a celebrity doing the asking. She insists on seat 8A on Virgin Atlantic, and will take a different flight if she cannot have it. And she absolutely won’t fly in a backwards-facing business class seat.

“I travel a lot. I have very specific seats I always choose (ask Virgin Atlantic; if I can’t get 8A, I’ll change planes). I like an aisle seat when traveling domestically because I need to use the rest room a lot. I like to be at the front because I don’t like crowds and invariably need to disembark quickly. I spend weeks, sometimes months, making sure I have my favorite seat.”

The woman reports that a father was furious when she wouldn’t switch seats so that family could sit together – wishing her “ill for the future” and “storm[ing] off.”

The storming off is a problem here. If you are going to need to change seats at least do your best to have good trade bait. Try to have an aisle seat, definitely not a window, and not a bulkhead in a domestic first class cabin. You want your seat to seem like an even trade, so if you have one window and one aisle in different rows ask the person in the window to switch for the aisle as a first measure, rather than the other way around.

Seat swap requests can be egregious though,

Now, you can generally trade seats with whomever you wish although some airlines may have rules on this when it involves switching cabins. United won’t let you just take a better seat in the same cabin, even, while ither airlines will.

Bottom line you should book seats together if it is at all possible, even if it’s more costly to do so. You shouldn’t impose a cost on other passengers to save yourself money, though sometimes you can get away with it. However if there aren’t seats together, or you lose your seats together for operational reasons (my wife and I were split apart on our honeymoon by an air marshal so we asked another passenger to switch), then it’s reasonable to make the request.

It is also reasonable for the other passenger to refuse that request. They have a property right (or, really, a usufructuary right) in the seat to which they’re assigned – at least in Western societies. (In Nigeria your seat may be considered to belong to your elders out of respect.)

If the passenger won’t switch for free, what about paying them for their seat? I once paid a young teenager $5 not to recline on a Cleveland – Los Angeles flight so I could work on my laptop (I had their parents’ permission). That’s a straightforward Coasian solution to the problem.

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. My first question when someone wants me to trade seats is, “Where are you sitting?” If it’s not equal or better (in my opinion), I politely decline.

    Having raised four children through their teenage years, and with 6 grandchildren in the throes of
    being teenagers, I can ignore attitude and snark with ease.

    And, when all else fails, I can take a cue from my grandfather — when my grandmother berated him, he turned off his hearing aids and just smiled.

  2. I refuse to swap on principle. Of course, should someone offer a first or business class seat I would take it. But in 30 years of frequent flying, this has NEVER happened to me.

    In this day and age of differential seat pricing, they are not only asking for my seat, they are also asking for my money. And of course, the time and trouble I put in selecting and monitoring it weeks before the flight to make sure the airline hasn’t messed with it either. I am not giving it up to some Kyle or Karen who covets what I rightfully beat them to fair and square.

    Anyone else could do the same, and most likely didn’t. Through ignorance, cheapness or poor luck, they seek to make their problem into mine. It’s not my problem to solve nor is it my ethical obligation to comply.

    If all is well and good where I am, I am not risking getting into a worse situation. Typically, they seek to improve their own situation at the cost of mine. They want out of the middle. They want more legroom. They want to be closer to the front. Or more insidiously the trade they are offering has a deep dark secret: next to an obese person, a broken entertainment system, a broken recline, a puddle of dried vomit on the floor or some other problem.

    If I have already secured the bin space over my seat, I am certainly not moving away from my things, or having to swim upstream after the flight to retrieve it, or having it out of eyesight behind me.

    I don’t care about your problem, your anxiety, your military status, your newlywed situation, your separation from your spouse, your desire to sit with your friend, or even your separation from your children.

    I don’t care about seeming like the bad guy. It’s my seat and I need no justification.
    Asking people puts them on the spot publicly, is an imposition, and while accusations of violating common courtesy are leveled against people who refuse to swap, I submit that common courtesy is first and foremost asking others to inconvenience themselves for your own wants.

  3. If people cannot refrain from becoming nasty when they ask others to swap seats and are refused., then the airlines need to instatutexaxpolicy whereby if you belittle someone for refusing to swap seats then you will be asked to deboard plane . No refund should be given. Too much ofcthis keeps hapoening

  4. “They just didn’t like the bulkhead, and they stuck me with the bulkhead.”

    No, you volunteered you seat for the bulkhead.

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