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,
- I was once asked to change seats so that a couple could sit together, only to learn that they were already seated together, they just didn’t like the bulkhead, and they stuck me with the bulkhead (I don’t like the bulkhead either!).
- A reader once gave up his premium seat so that a family could sit together only to have the family sell that seat to another passenger and not actually sit together.
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.