United Airlines Dublin Passengers Battle Over Empty Seat: Who Does Extra Space Belong To?

Once the plane takes off, and the middle seat in your row remains empty, does it now belong to you for the rest of the flight? That’s the question that a passenger wanted to know after a recent trip where they were called nasty names for trying to protect the space.

  • A married couple were flying United from Dublin to Washington Dulles. They had the window and middle seat together, but no one showed up for the aisle so they spread out and left the middle seat empty.

  • That’s how it remained for the first half of the flight, until a friend of the passenger across the aisle moved up and tried to take it “to get away from an crying baby further back.”

  • The couple sought out the help of a flight attendant to protect their turf.

The FA said the agreement was that they could take an available aisle seat but could not disrupt anyone’s seating arrangements. The woman then starts bitching about how I was assigned the middle but then moved to the aisle before takeoff, so I shouldn’t even have that aisle seat. I had been sitting there for almost 5 hours and we had already distributed our items all over the row.

In the end, the woman wasn’t allowed to take the middle seat. Or did she just chose not to? That’s what her friend claimed, because the couple “was so incredibly rude.” Rudeness pays, I guess? Being unwelcoming makes other passengers feel unwelcome, and choose a different seat – perhaps a more comfortable aisle, but further from her friend.

It seems to me that the passenger seeking the middle seat was rude, didn’t approach politely but presumptively, and the friend was even more rude later (also using profanity that I’m not repeating here).

However, it was an empty seat that other passengers were just as entitled to as the couple that claimed it. It’s a good thing there were apparently several empty seats. These passengers beside each other would have been combustible – but escaping non-stop cries for someone especially bothered by it seems reasonable as well.

On the other hand, there’s a view that (1) any seat changes need to be done prior to departure, (2) and once inflight, passengers have secured usufructuary rights to the space. Politeness here, and even solicitousness, is a must.

Of course, while it used to be the norm that you could switch to any open seat in your cabin on a plane, that’s no longer true now that airlines monetize those seats and in some cases don’t just have seats with extra legroom but also that come with free drinks or even snacks. It’s always best to check with a flight attendant, and their whim will determine your flexibility.

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. Lol usufructuary rights – that’s good. I recently boarded AF flight, seated one row behind the bulkhead and eyeing an empty aisle seat. Suddenly from waaaaaaaaay back a woman came running up and grabbed it. I was mildly surprised but hey, well played.

  2. Move than 25 years ago I was on a business trip. I think I was flying Dulles to London. I was sitting in an aisle seat and this attractive blonde was sitting in the window seat. I was tired but can’t sleep on planes.
    This drunk British guy came up and asked to sit in the middle seat. I think he wanted to hit on the lady but we told him no and he left.

  3. FFS, it’s farther if it means more distance away. So many supposed journalists get this wrong, even in venerable media like LAT, WP and NYT!

  4. Where were the flight attendants during all of this? Are ticketed pax supposed to remain in their assigned seats unless there is a malfunction, ie, the seat is broken, the fan vent overhead is dripping, etc. If for no other reason than weight and balance, pax usually remain where ticketed. Otherwise the flight becomes a big game of musical chairs with a bunch of whiny preschoolers.

  5. I had something similar happen to me. I was in an aisle seat in an exit row, DFW to MAD. No one was seated in the middle, but an AA employee was in the window seat. I could tell as her laptop had AA logs on the desktop. I noticed the logos as she had her laptop open and was working during taxi and take off. The FA was seated directly across from her and said nothing.

    Since we had the middle seat open, we both put some personal items in the middle seat, including my iPad. A couple of hours into the flight (overnight), this dude just plops himself down and starts chatting up this woman. It looked to be work-related, as she was showing him stuff on her laptop. I was perturbed but didn’t say much at the time other than to move my personal items from behind him.

    As this was an exit row, the tray tables were connected to the seats, and the tray was half unfolded as I had been using it to put stuff. The conversation kept going on and seemed to move from business to flat-out flirting. What was becoming really annoying was the guy was smacking and hitting the tray tables regularly, seeming to emphasize a point. It was well into the flight, and I was trying to sleep, but it was impossible because he kept shaking the entire row.

    Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore, so I looked over at him and asked, “Is this your seat?” The AA employee at the window looked at me aghast and said, “This is my friend.”

    I was done being polite and just reiterated the question. I remember she said something to the effect it wasn’t, but as the seat was empty.

    I responded, “I specifically chose this seat because the middle seat was empty, and as it was an emergency row, if he didn’t pay to sit there, he should go back to his own seat, and I’m tired of being shaken while he talks through the night.”

    Then comes the icing on the cake: the AA employee sitting in the window haughtily, “He’s in business class.”

    I had already seen this woman act like the rules didn’t apply to her, not even hiding the fact she was using her laptop during taxi and take off. Add the fact this dude is also an AA employee (as she was showing him all kinds of things on her computer) or somehow associated with her and could take it, and the multihour flirt-a-thon was keeping me up well into the night I went full-on rude level two. I may have possibly uttered an expletive or two, but to summarize, I suggested he should go back to his seat and then just looked at them both.

    The woman looked on in shock and then said I was rude; I said I was tired of hearing the love fest and getting shaken all night long, and if it was that frigging essential to sit together, then maybe she they should have booked to sit together instead of inconveniencing a paying customer.

    The guy got up and walked away. Of course she had to get the last word… out loud and by action. She literally sniffed at me, called me rude again, proceeded to turn on her reading light, pull a mask over her eyes and curl up against the wall.

  6. Farther – Greater distance. “It is farther to New York than it is to Philadelphia.”

    Further – Greater time. “Further on today, we will have dinner.”

  7. If I have paid for the middle seat as an extra seat for comfort along with paying for my window seat, it is my space to do with what I want and that certainly doesn’t mean someone else occupying it. I had a mother and daughter team try to punk me out of my window seat to a crappy middle seat a ways back. That didn’t work, either but the daughter took the empty middle seat. It made things more cramped but I had not paid for that seat. Fortunately an empty middle seat was next to me on my flight from ICN to PNH a few days ago. The aisle seat passenger and I both were able to spread out a bit. Our good luck. I would resent someone trying to take away the space but ultimately, I didn’t pay for it.

  8. BTW, I don’t get why people go nuts about babies crying. It is what babies do when they feel discomfort. It generally doesn’t bother me. I tend to like babies a lot more than a lot of adults.

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