Aisle, Window, or Luck: Savoring the Moment of an Empty Middle Seat

On Southwest Airlines, since there are no pre-assigned seats, passengers have developed strategies to keep the middle seat next to them free. Some have even elevated it to an art form.

Flying an airline with pre-assigned seats, one strategy for extra space is for a couple traveling together to book a window and an aisle seat, figuring that if there’s an open seat on the plane it’s probably going to be a middle. They might get more room! And worst case they can always get that person in the middle seat to switch with one of them.

As the plane approaches the end of boarding, and the middle seat next to you remains open, there’s this moment of tense anticipation when you start wondering whether that middle seat might remain open for the duration of the flight. You watch each passenger head down the aisle past you, and keep your eye on the boarding door, as though your vigilance might somehow make the difference. And then it happens, one way or the other.

@denisealexis When you take that gamble and pray that it’s not a full flight so nobody actually takes the middle seat and we would have an extra seat to ourselves If anyone is wondering why my mum didn’t take the middle seat, she abandoned us and booked biz class for herself #foryou #flight #relateable ♬ Every Second – Mina Okabe

Next-level strategy is to book seats across from the aisle from each other, so no matter what both passengers are guaranteed the extra room to lean into that the aisle brings – although they’re sacrificing their shot at sharing that extra space from an empty middle.

Whether flying with someone that you’re plotting with, or traveling on your own, there’s nothing like an empty middle seat. Having extra space makes everything about the journey seem better. The flight attendants are friendlier. The food is somehow delicious!

@billiejeanreed OFF WE GO TEAM #economy #plane #europe ♬ original sound – bills

This woman boarded a Qantas flight, and was headed to Europe. Though in her euphoria she was not actually correct that she would have an empty middle seat for 30 hours of travel. Her connecting flight to Europe (sold as a separate segment) might well have a passenger seated beside her. But when you’re in economy, beginning a long journey, and you’ve just doubled your space (or will share an empty seat with another person in your row, and therefore grown your personal space 50%) it’s the sweetest feeling in the world – not just the feeling of comfort, but also of victory, gaining that comfort via a lottery, for free.

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. Its a very old trick, have been doing it for years and many times it is succesful
    That said, many airlines in europe, mostly low cost, do not allow 2 pax on same reservation tl leave an empty seat in the middle
    I doubt the big 3 in usa will catch up on that

  2. At the beginning of the year me and a travel companion were booked on separate reservations and mis-connected. The agent in the SkyClub actually rebooked us to an asile and middle seat. Only issue was the flight was the next day (we were stuck overnight, it was a mechanical delay and Delta booked us into the Marriott on the SkyTrian) and the gate agent undid the work, moving one of us (to an asile seat closet to the front of the plane) to accommodate a couple who had also miss-connected (who I felt sorry for since they had missed on their first of a double connection and instead of a night in a hotel we’re forced onto a red eye). I noticed the changed in the Delta App but by the time we got from the SkyClub to the gate we were told it was too late.

  3. It would be a real pain if the US3 emulated the EU LCC model for this, but if they did I would book a third pax who would have a last minute emergency and need to cxl

  4. A week ago I flew on Asiana. The food was good on both segments. The first segment had a lady trying to poach my window seat. The flight attendant got her into her middle seat. The second segment in an A380 across the Pacific had no middle seat occupant next to my window seat. It was great. The flight attendants were helpful and cheerful.

  5. I no longer have to worry about this problem. This year, I started to fly ( always ) in Business Class !

  6. The only real trick is to fly on separate reservations and book the aisle and the window. Generally, if someone then comes and claims the middle they’ll usually trade off with you since they weren’t thrilled to have the middle in the first place.

    Of course, this can backfire if one of you gets an upgrade and the other doesn’t.

  7. My wife an I do this and it works… usually. Last month for complicated reasons we ended up with an LCC flight out of Chisnau Moldova. The middle seat was taken by a large, panting and upset Russian woman. We immediately offered her the window seat and she declined, said (I guess, since I don’t understand Russian) that she would take the aisle not window but I didn’t want the middle so she stayed seated between us. She then immediately started the most violent, wet, phleghmy hacking into her hands and spraying in every direction. We both had K95s on (we still wear them in tight economy settings) but this was next level. Within minutes she got her wish and we relocated to the last row next to the potty rather than get spewed on for two hours. So I don’t think you can always assume that if there is a middle occupant s/he will relocate per your wishes

  8. I like to fly United to Barcelona in an older plane with 2 aisles and only 2 seats abreast at the sides. I cannot stand those single aisle planes with 3 abreast!

  9. This what separates the great airline apps from the bad ones. Comparing 2 to show, Delta has a live seat map that is updated up to the end of boarding, so not only can you monitor the seat status leading up to the flight, you watch during boarding to see if someone got assigned the seat.

    On the other hand British Airways only shows you the seat map when you pick your seat. You can’t monitor nor change as seats fill up.

  10. Face it, the middle seat is ALWAYS a concern manifested when the occupant is an overweight, obese human has never missed a meal with seconds. I am sure some lard bucket will resent the truth here, but hey, you are the person who ruins a flight for those sitting on either side of you having to put up with the results of your gluttony.

  11. @david miller
    I am not obese or large but from your post it seems you are frustrated, perhaps your wife is so obese she can’t even bend over for your amusement and hence the resentment?

  12. Doug – I have no use for those who impune on my paid for seating space with their slovenly presence. Save your half witted response for one who is frustrated and harbors resentment.

  13. @fat miller
    my regards to your obese wife, even though is hard to find her pleasure cavities I am sure she is a darling to put up with an a-hole like you

  14. Jake – sometimes it is required to get down to someone’s level to help them with understanding reality. It is called “life”. Now take your fake indignance and find something worthwhile to make noise about.

  15. When traveling with a group, I put everyone in an aisle set. If couples, then across the aisle from one another. Most of the time, its one behind the other due to limited seat options.
    Some of the men in the group prefer it this way!!!

  16. Sad to see people don’t have knee and shoulder space on airplanes and transit buses. It’s cruel and unsafe and it creates fights, alongvwith the fact knee space needs to be enough for the crash position to clear head from other seat if expecting a hard or crash landing.

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