United Airlines Flight Attendant Creates ‘Barrier’ So Passengers Can’t Switch To Empty Seats

You used to be able to take any open seat in your cabin once the doors closed. You might move closer to the front, grab an aisle seat, or head for an empty row in the back so you could stretch out.

As a kid I remember making a bee-line for an empty middle row on an American Airlines flight from Honolulu to Sydney, so I could lay down and sleep.

  • Self-upgrading was never allowed. You couldn’t just move from economy to business class.
  • Now, though, airlines charge for ‘premium’ seats in coach so they don’t usually let you go from regular coach to extra legroom seats for free, even if the seats are empty once the doors close.
  • People might not pay if they knew they could take an extra legroom seat for free that was empty once everyone had boarded!

On a recent United Airlines flight from Honolulu to Los Angeles, there were plenty of empty seats and passengers wanted to spread out. They asked permission from a flight attendant. Things did not go well. According to a passenger who wasn’t allowed to move,

  • The flight attendant quoted them a price of $180

  • When that offer was declined, the crewmember blocked off the empty seats by opening up each seat’s tray tables.

Years ago open seats were pretty much fair game. Now different airlines take different approaches. Southwest still has open seating! And once you’re on the plane it’s Lord of the Flies complete with seat-saving and crumpled up tissues to keep people away from the middle seat they hope to save.

Delta calls their extra legroom seats at the front of the plane “Comfort+” and it’s a different fare type. Effectively, it’s a different cabin just like coach is different than business class.

When American Airlines introduced free drinks to Main Cabin Extra extra legroom seats they left it up to flight attendants whether or not to stop passengers from moving into those seats – but around a year and a half ago began asking flight attendants to crack down on passengers moving to get extra space for free.

In the past, United has argued that passengers moving up to open seats with extra legroom is immoral; that it’s unfair to other passengers and it’s stealing from the airline.

But according to this logic United shouldn’t be able to sell cheap fares or offer MileagePlus awards because it is unfair to people that pay full fare? Of course passengers who buy Economy Plus get Economy Plus and are in no way harmed when other passengers get it free – via elite status, via luck of the draw or otherwise.

Sitting in an open seat that can never be sold (because the plane is already in the air) is not the same thing as taking a physical car off of a lot where it is waiting to be sold. In the former case United loses nothing, in the latter case the loss is real.

It seems strange to compare United slimline economy seats to a Lexus, although I once a flight attendant compare Economy Plus to a Mercedes.

The better argument is: we do not allow passengers to move to better seats without paying extra (except under our own terms, for our operational.convenience or elite perks) because that would encourage passengers to take a chance rather than paying on future trips. The actual reason: It’s not allowed because we don’t allow it, not because of some broader moral imperative.

Comparing changing to an open seat nobody else is using can’t be stealing, because the airline hasn’t given up anything, and claiming it harms other passengers isn’t right either because other passengers still got exactly what they paid for.

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. I absolutely agree with this policy. In fact, the next time I fly, I will make a point to thank and hand a gift card to the flight attendent who does this.

  2. Everyone desires cost-free services. They inquired if you were interested in an upgrade, which is why they have those business phones. Everything can be accomplished using the phone. If you cannot afford to travel comfortably, you should reconsider your travel plans. It is their corporate policy, and they are adhering to it. Would you want employees who disregard your company’s policies?

  3. I am sure here the person/s were trying to move to Economy Plus seats. It is standard for UA FA to say it costs X to sit in these seats if you don’t have status.
    Just like passengers wanting to move to Business when it has empty seats.

    On AA – you get free drinks in MCE – so AA should charge for those. I have been on an AA flight and person with a Boarding group 9 (Basic Economy) moved up to MCE middle seat after flight took off. Usually they let you move to say aisle or window in same row or same pitch,

  4. OK to put tray tables down. But if someone is told that seat will cost you more (UA will charge you on board) and they refuse to move back, then the FA should tell them they will be arrested once landed. They do that for people that move to Business and refuse to move.

  5. This article promotes self-entitlement behaviour. It is distasteful and totally unbecoming. You have absolutely no right to betterment of your seat unless your seat is faulty and the airline is obliged to secure you a proper working seat as replacement or the airline chooses to give you a betterment of your seat of their own accord based on their reasons – not yours to decide.

    If you want a better seat, pay for it. Stop penny-pinching. Too expensive and can’t afford it? That does not mean you can take it because you want it. The microcosm of this self-entitlement behaviour is the penny-pinching people who want to sit toether in-flight but are too cheap to buy the ticket early and pay for seat selections.

    The airline seat is a product for the airline to sell. Just because the better seats have not been sold when the flight takes off does not mean that you, who bought a cheaper seat, have a right to occupy the better seats that you have not paid for. The fact that some have posted how they trick or finnagle their way to one is eyerolling.

    It is this kind of behaviour that makes the situation worse as airlines clamp down on all these shenanigans. For people who want to make the airline travel experience better, a number of them here, including the writer of the article, are promoting behaviour that makes it worse for everyone.

  6. People…pay and sit…pay more for whatever a better seat is…it’s transportation not a hotel…it’s a plane..not an excuse to lose your mind…sit….go a few hours…or drive if you can…

  7. If you buy a cheap seat for a concert, you won’t be moving yourself up to a better seat that’s empty! An Usher will run younoff.

  8. Remember when flying was fun? Now it’s like an innercity bus. Too many classes, too many fees, too many restrictions, too many rules. What you pay for is not a good value at all, but you will overpay for what you get. No meals, just half a snack. Want to bring luggage, then quadruple your ticket. Whats next, a fee to use the bathroom? A fee to have your tray open? Scoff, but more insults like that are coming. Nope, I drive now as much as possible and avoid the cattlecar.

  9. I used to fly Jet Blue DCA-CHS a lot and for such a short ride the exit row seat fee was very reasonable. I’d have the entire row, left and right, to myself. INVARIABLY someone self-upgraded – and ALWAYS got sent back to the seat they paid for by the flight attendant. I appreciated it. Want it? Pay for it.

  10. @Bob Spoons – Bad analogy. If there’s prime rib leftover at the end of the night it can be made into prime rib sandwiches, steak sandwiches, soup, other foods, or simply donated to a shelter. Still, your analogy is lots better than the people who just think a seat in the same category should remain empty simply so people remain uncomfortable in the name of “rules”.

  11. FA was spot on. Book properly, pay for what you want, stop the nonsense of entitlement. Table good, unemotional firm way to make the point.

  12. I’m with @Bob Spoons and others on this one. Another analogy — let’s say that I’ve booked a standard room at a hotel and a luxury suite is empty. Should I be allowed to stay in the suite at no additional cost?

  13. One of many reasons I refuse to fly United.

    Never had a positive experience with UA.

    I saw a UA FA allow a 12 year old boy to sit in an exit row because his dad flashed his Million Mile Card to FA.when confronted
    about his age.

    If youre a business man with lots of status… it’s probably a good airline…. but for middle class schlubs like me… UA is never even considered for personal or business travel.

  14. This was a United 777-200, all of which feature a row of E+ seats in the middle way back in a sea of regular economy seating. It’s blurry, but you can make out that this is row 40 with the trays down (see the difference in the OH bin markings across the way).

    United only has two 777 configs with row 39 & 40; these show regular economy seating for ABC & JKL and E+ for DEFG. This most definitely would be an upgrade, and of course there’s a charge for that. Case closed.

    I’m sure the theory is that pax will feel envious of those better seats and actually pay for the upgrade next time. Isn’t this why everyone gets marched through F to board?? Or why Basic Economy exists??

  15. The FA was right. Its OK to move within your class of service. Moving from Economy to Economy Plus is not right. I buy my Economy Plus seats. If I know that moving from Economy to Economy Plus is allowed, I would buy the higher priced ticket. The seats are marked and people should honor the fact that others paid for the upgrade.

  16. I feel like leaving those tray tables open in an exit row is probably a safety issue. In an emergency, the FA isn’t going to be able to immediately put them down again.

  17. Excuse me . . . But it’s a safety issue. Weight and balance is critical to an airplane staying in the air! When passengers change seats, it changes the weight and balance of the airplane. So if you want the airplane to stay in the air for the duration of your flight, just stay in the seat you were in at take off.

  18. Obviously FAs should enforce not moving to a fare class above what you paid for. Otherwise fine to move around in a half empty plane. But when it is pretty full, I wish FAs would stop people from moving around. People will even move into the empty seat next to you just for the purpose of giving their own companions an empty middle seat next to them. Whatever class I am in, I select my seat and. my row. Wish everybody would do the same and then stay in the seat they picked.

  19. “Comparing changing to an open seat nobody else is using can’t be stealing, because the airline hasn’t given up anything, and claiming it harms other passengers isn’t right either because other passengers still got exactly what they paid for.”

    Dumb argument, try poach an open Polaris seat and use this excuse.

    Also don’t forget, this is an argument from a ‘thought leader’.

  20. This is the reason when I fly back home to the US, I try to make sure I am on a non-US airline until my final destination, especially a Middle East airline. With Arab hospitality, whether in a home, store, or airplane, an airline in the Middle East would be ashamed to prevent passengers from moving once everyone boarded. If the airline is worried about extra perks in the premium seat, simply inform the moving passenger they would not be entitled to the extra perks but are welcome to enjoy the seat. Selfishness is rampant when someone says I paid for this seat and that person got it for free. Yes they took a risk that they would be cramped like a sardine. I’m not willing to risk being cramped and will pay to have peace of mind and comfort. But I’m not upset if someone took the risk of being cramped and gets the better seat that is sitting empty. I didn’t lose anything, I paid for guaranteed comfort and got it. In my view this is a form of selfishness. It is similar to complaining at a State Fair for paying $20 for a hamburger and then they have leftovers and gave some for free. With the selfishness mentality, I’d rather those people not get the free burger and eat, only for the fact that I paid for my burger that I wanted and received. People justifying this selfishness are the reasons the airlines keep making more ridiculous policies to squeeze out from the consumer. Once the airlines start charging to use the bathroom, it will be interesting to see the comments justifying the absurdity.

  21. The warped and disfigured version of post 9/11 reality is a real struggle for those of us who knew the 20th century.

    “Still, your analogy is lots better than the people who just think a seat in the same category should remain empty simply so people remain uncomfortable in the name of “rules”.”

    Now, to be fair and totally communist, the FAs need to use their ipads to process refunds in the cabin to ensure no 2 passengers accomodated with the same accomodation are paying not one red cent more or less than those passengers being accomodated with the same accomodation.

    No one should get anything for free that i’ve already paid for! That’s right – the guy next to you across the aisle, he bought his aisle seat last night when revenue management dumped inventory, so to each according to need and ability to pay – you get a refund for the difference between what he paid and what you paid weeks ago, processed on the FA’s ipad.

  22. I am single and get air sick. So getting stuck by some kid or someone not wanting you to put your seat back, or worst someone hitting rear of seat can be a bad situation when all I want to do is lay back and sleep. Or being forced into a middle seat for some family can sit together. I pay for an aisle seat and hope who ever is in the middle won’t encroach on where I am sitting. But when this does happen it would be courteous for the flight attendant to find a seat of equal price that does fit those same parameters or price and move me into it. That’s not being entitled that’s just being courteous since I have no way of picking who is next to or behind me.

  23. I see a lot of parroting from people with greater ethics…. who would gladely use the middle seat next to them fopr their own benefit if no-one is seating there.

    Well you should not. You did not pay for it.
    Soon enough, United FAs will remove the seat alltogether and put a monolithic bloc instead to ensure you do not encrouach into the free space that you did not pay for.

  24. This is a universal problem to all of mankind, and all economic classes. On our private jet, we often fight over who sits in what seat. I wish I was kidding but I am not.

  25. Just don’t fly United. How many reasons to avoid them does a person need?

  26. Greed by corporations and people expecting & willing to be gouged by these corporations will eventually be the ruination of capitalism. When business was NON corporate run by lawyers this country prospered & was united. Look at business & the country overall now.

  27. The big international airlines like Saudia, Emirates, KLM, Qatar Airways,ect don’t have these hangups. I learned a big lesson here, don’t book a flight with United. during the pandemic I watched to fly attendants tear into an elderly man because he didn’t put his mask on directly after taking a bite from his meal. They threaten to land at a remote airport in Canada and toss them off the airplane. On top of that they threatened to find him $25,000. The man started crying and said he didn’t have that kind of money, he was only visiting his son in Shreveport. They’re the meanest and rudest flight crews in the sky. If they told me I had to fly United to get to work I would probably just quit. I canceled my frequent flyer account with them years ago. I hope they go bankrupt one day

  28. UA does give the crew the ability to charge for “upgrades” via their EFB. I have seen this in action.

    As for the tray tables… UA is not the only carrier where crews may do this. I’ve seen it on other US based carriers and even Asia carriers (JL, TG, NH, PH). Tables are fine once the plane is above 10k ft.

    As mentioned, people pay for more leg room, so why should someone self upgrade for free, when others have paid for it? I could understand moving from Eco to Eco, but not Eco to Eco+

  29. I agree with the airline on this one. Others went ahead and paid for the seats. Regarding your status comment, that’s the whole reason people try becoming an elite- to get the value of a better seat because they’ve paid to get loyalty (by flying on that airline, spending on their cc, etc.).

  30. The reason is – and I’m surprised the article didn’t mention this – that if the self upgrade to more legroom seats is allowed, some customers who would have paid for it will be deterred from doing so again and just try their luck next time.

  31. The airlines are bailed out by the government (i.e. the public) every seven years (on average over the last 30 years). All unpurchased seats including business class should be available on a first come first serve basis. The public has paid for these seats with their taxes. Before anyone makes the brain-dead argument that the airlines have paid back the “loans” etc., that’s not how it works, if the government had not bailed them out it could have nationalized them for pennies on the dollar. It should have, we could be flying around at cost or near cost. But instead we allow the airlines to get back on their feet and when they’re profitable again (usually by coming up with a way of squeezing cash out of customers for a service that used to be free) they engage massive stock buybacks and when an inevitable crisis comes, they run to the government and ask for another no strings attached bailout, rinse and repeat.

  32. Carriers, especially US carriers, are going to nickel and dime us to death. It’s the price of low fares, but also, increasing shareholder value. Corporations gonna corporate.

    Best thing to do if they’re going to charge per section, is to make the distinction far more clear in the air, and less confusing when booking.

    How many seldom-fluers, for example, understand UA’s b.s.basic economy policy?

  33. I accept the extra legroom, premium economy being a different class and ineligible to move up to. The absurdity is when economy seats in the back quarter of the plane are completely full, but those same sized seats with the same legroom in the 2nd and 3rd quarter of the plane are completely empty due to location premiums. Why seats in row 30 would cost so much more than row 31 is a mystery yet to be adequately explained.

  34. I agree with the consensus here that you should be able to move within your class of service, but not to a higher class (including PE, exit rows, bulkheads, and other seats with extra legroom).

    BUT this doesn’t resolve all questions. Some airlines charge more for aisles and windows than middles (and I bet more will do so eventually). Can you move from a middle to the aisle seat next to you? To an aisle in another row? Does it matter if someone else is in that row was enjoying having the row to themselves (but didn’t pay for the extra seat of course)?

    And someone said you can’t move to a better seat at a concert. Not true. Typically you can move within a section. And at a Broadway play, you can generally move to any open seat at intermission.

  35. In defense of the airlines. If a passenger learns that they can just pay for the cheapest ticket and then move up as they see fit it makes a mockery of charging for seats.

    Perhaps the airlines should invest in small LED displays in the overhead bins the way some European trains do to show what seats are reserved and or what they cost.

  36. When boarding is finished and there are empty unsold seats. Passengers should be allowed to change seats. Not to first or business class. But, passengers comfort on a flight is every airlines responsibility. Especially long flights.

    The flight attendants should want their passengers to enjoy their flight.

  37. I actually agree with the airline on this one. If you’re upgrading from standard economy to economy plus then it is an upgrade and you should have to pay. People who have paid for economy plus should be allowed to move among those seats freely and enjoy their extra space that they paid for.

  38. The notion that it does not cost the airline anything different to fly from A to B once in the air is true; however the laws of economics; supply and demand, rule the pricing of seats and management of upgrades.
    These are often based on rewarding early reservations with lower costs and prioritizing upgrades based on elite status, when you purchased a ticket and how much you paid for the seat.

    Any free movements within this process devalues the entire effort and countermands customer loyalty.

    Stop feeling entitled to something you did not earn or pay for and respect the effort of those that had.

    Onboard modern aviation is a cashless experience, so the notion an employee was pocketing any money is ludicrous, it all gets processed on a company issued smart device.

  39. A year last April, I had to take an earlier flight from Hawaii. I purchased my flight home, choosing my seat that afforded me leg room. When I checked in, I was offered an upgrade to first class for the first leg of the trip. I accepted and paid the additional fee. Arriving at the second airport, I found the airline had canceled my seat reservation for the rest of the flight. They sold my extra-room seat and never refunded me original payment for the better seat. This has happened twice! My friends and I purchased our flight to Hawaii months in advance and purchased seats together, but when we checked in that morning, I had been assigned a center seat 7 or 8 seats behind my friends because the airline had changed planes. Understandable, but what happened to my refund??? And why was my assigned a center seat when my extra fee for “pay-for-your choice” was for an aisle seat? I could not find anyone at the two companies to season to reason. Instead of flying anywhere, I choose either to drive or take a train. I used to travel all the time, but airlines are no longer a pleasant way to travel.

  40. It’s pretty silly the flight attendants have to police these policies. A better way to do this is to have the passengers sign a waiver while purchasing their ticket. This waiver would allow the FAs to use their mobile device and automatically charge the customer the fare difference using their mobile device. This eliminates the awkward having to talk to people and tell them you can’t sit there because you didn’t pay for it conversation.

    People hate being told they can’t do something. Especially Americans. This allows them to do what they want while the airline can legally collect the revenue. Ofcourse the verbiage needs to be crystal clear at the time of booking.

  41. Why don’t FAs charge to use the bathroom? Want cool air blowing instead of warm? Charge them. Want filtered fresh air rather than stinky stale air? $100. Need to stand up to stretch your legs? $50.

    Airlines are pathetic and the poster child of Uber greed. Of course they cheap-out on maintenance. This is why I refuse to fly. Airlines nickel and dime you to death, customer service is non-existent, FAs are power-tripping, and some passengers have their nose up their rears because they’re Super Silver Elite Double Plated Pecker Club members and they think they’re part of the crew.

    Give me my car where it’s just me, I can take to route I want, stop where I want, do what I want, and don’t have to put up with any BS from anyone.

  42. Since there aren’t enough seats for everyone to move to more leg room, it’s not fair to let only some move for free. If you could move for free once airborne, there would be a stampede to get an upgraded seat. What a mess that would be!

  43. The current policy of airlines especially in North America is that passengers should travel in as much pain as possible unless they pay extra.

  44. I totally agree! If you want to upgrade to an empty premium seat, then you need to pay for it. The other people had to pay for it. Who cares if the plane is in the air!! And I highly doubt the Flight Attendant is collecting the money for herself when they don’t collect cash anyway. Everything is credit!!

  45. I just flew Delta for the first time in many many years. (I live and work in Europe and am a very frequent flier.) I was in a row of three with 2 pax. I was on the aisle and the other gentleman was assigned to the middle seat. When the plane took off, he moved to the window seat. Same row, one seat difference.

    The FA came over and very aggressively shamed him into moving back to the middle seat. Which was significantly less comfy for us both. I’ve never seen anything like it.

    Not allowing passengers to freely change cabin I get. But not allowing them to move over one seat? Ridiculous.

    This combined with the extremely silly new policy of breaking Sky Priority into 4 zones (which only caused chaos on these flights) made me give Delta some serious side eye.

  46. @Bob, United had net cash outflows last year of over $1 billion, while incurring $3/4 billion in tax expenses. How is not letting those take for free that which you charge others for greedy?

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