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. @Mitch, you probably got a few checks from the governess during Covid. Next time I’m in your town, I expect you will let stay at your place if you have a spare room.

  2. @Gary, if I paid extra to get 11C in Y+, I am certainly hurt if a couple from Y moves to 11A and B. Yes, they might have been occupied by others who paid or were assigned, but part of my benefit should be keeping them empty if no one pays and they aren’t needed. Similarly, my flight will be better if 10C and/or 12C are empty.

    Still, that case where the FA had the middle passenger vacate the empty window seat is crazy. Yes, there might be an uncharge for A and C, but not B is some rows, but letting B move to A benefits C.

  3. @Josh. Great, somebody put together the long-term incentives. Cheers! What do you do if a group of you are flying on SW? One (and only one) pays for early boarding. Why? SW let’s them save seats. You book a flight not far in advance and see lots of Y+ seats are empty. Why pay 1/3 more if the airline will let you upgrade from Y to Y+ after boarding? I’d be completely happy with a policy that said you must stay in your assigned seat (with the exception that a middle seater of a group of 3 seats can move left or right to an empty seat).

  4. The same seat is not the same for everyone. A tall person may suffer more pain when the person in front reclines to their seat. A person with a history of deep vein thrombosis may be more vulnerable to a recurrence if they are in a seat where they cannot even wiggle their toes. A person travelling with children is going to have to pay a lot more to reserve adjacent seats than a single person traveling alone. A middle seat is often fine for a child, but not for a large adult.

    Why should I pay extra to have my children seated next to me, if it is really more convenient for the airline to split us up?

    I have often been offered the exit row seats without paying extra, because I am capable of opening an emergency door. Why does the airline not offer me a reduction for being available in an emergency.

    It is all nonsense. Airlines should offer a variety of seats at the same price to meet different needs. For example, when I travel on long distance buses in Ecuador, I am generally assigned a seat in the front 1or 2 rows, because I am a senior traveling alone. For flights originating in Ecuador I also get a 50% discount and VAT refund for the same reason.

    The only reason that several US airlines make flying unnecessarily unpleasant for passengers is because they can. But not all world airlines are the same. I prefer to use Copa or Latam or BA. The seats might not be any bigger, but at least the people are nicer.

  5. If I pay for Economy Plus and the flight ends up with one or two empty adjoining seats, why cannot I enjoy the extra space? Why should a cheap ass from Row 38 middle toilet be allowed to mooch into the empty seats? If you choose not (or cannot afford to) pay for a comfortable seat, take fecking Amtrak.

  6. Folks the airline world has changed. Seat class is the same as another cabin class. Get used to it and plan accordingly. If you want a premium economy seat pay for it. The people who did did so for a reason and shouldn’t have deal “self-upgrades.”

    Feel free to change within seat class but don’t feel empowered to move up.

  7. How about they stop charging for seats all together!!! Why dud this become the norm??

  8. I always pay for a seat with extra legroom. I feel you should be able to move around in your class of seat. If you didn’t pay for legroom or business etc then you are not entitled to it.

  9. When was the last time your were on a flight that wasn’t full or overbooked? They do it al the time. So finding an empty seat could be rare!

  10. Immoral is not refunding money immediately for cancellations. Maybe even those ridiculous charges for extra luggage…

  11. It is amazing how many comments seem to be from people or AI exhibiting Stockholm Syndrome symptoms. Of course, a lot of people also have controlling natures. On most Asian airlines that I have flown, flight attendants encourage people to move to get comfortable in coach if space is available. This also helps weight distribution as most people are usually clumped in the forward most seats in coach. The problem with USA airline charging for changes for comfort in coach is that that filth will likely pollute other, better airlines over time. Many of the worst practices seem to have came from now defunct airlines in the USA.

  12. United Airlines has been doing this for years. I have seen the flight crew turn the seats upside-down to prevent people from sitting in them. The bottom of the seats are ply wood. Seen a stewardess request $500 payment from a young lady foe an open bulkhead empty seat.

  13. That’s the great service Kirby brags about when he trash talks the low cost carriers.
    Go Kirby!

  14. Well I stopped flying United ever since they made DEI a priority over, experience, knowledge and abilities. Race, ethnicity and gender SHOULD NEVER BE A CRITERIA FOR HIRING FOR ANY JOB. By the way, I am a minority.

  15. You are completely wrong when you say, “can’t be sold because you’re already in the air.” The flight attendant quoted them $180 for the seats. So obviously they’re still for sale. Obtaining something for sale and not paying is called theft. UA has about 5k flights per day. If the average is $150 more per seat and only 2 seats per flight customers take those seats without paying. That’s $1.5 million per day in lost revenue. That’s $547.5 million per year. Almost the cost of 5 new A321’s per year. Still a victimless, harmless crime? Want a better seat, pay for it.

  16. Wow.. I thought this site had good articles. Officially blocking it from my Google feed.

    For the record: Charging extra for something that is better is simple capitalism. Welcome to America. Expecting something for nothing at it’s best is entitled…at worst it’s straight un-American. If you want it pay for it.

    Next time you check in at a hotel ask them if any upgrades are available. Then see if they’ll move you there for free just because it’s unoccupied.

    Completely ridiculous entitled nonsense.. Paying for products, services and amenities is as basic as common courtesy. For example the courtesy of just letting a flight attendants do their job without making their life more difficult.

    Everyone else follows the rules. Thinking that you don’t have to makes you a bad person.

    Now let’s all pull our heads out of our rears and just be decent human beings.

  17. The flight attendant should ask the passenger their name (who moved seats), and record it so they can be charged for the upgrade. Seems fair.

  18. Of course it is stealing, since it is against the provisions of a contract that the passenger agreed to when booking the ticket.

    It doesn’t matter how unfair you consider the contract to be; your recourse for that is either not to fly or to get the legislature to require the airlines to use what you consider a more fair contract.

    And it doesn’t matter that the seat cannot be sold to somebody else once the airplane is in the air. The carrier has made a conscious decision that it thinks maximizes its revenue by selling seats at certain prices, even if that means that some seats remain unsold as a reminder and incentive to passengers for the future that if they want those particular seats, they need to pay for them in advance. This varies across Industries. For example, there are aggregators who purchase unsold cruise tickets and sell them at extremely low prices, but you’re not likely to see those sales under the cruise lines own name; the cruise line might have made the decision that doing it this way maximizes revenue without implying that the best way to snag one of those low fares is to wait until the last minute. At least some high-end hotels of which I am aware prefer that rooms stay empty in certain seasons in order not to imply for the future that you can get a room in that hotel less expensively than the generally very high prices posted. And I believe that sports stadiums eject people who sneak downstairs to a better class of seating for which they did not pay (an option that is not necessarily available to an airline at 39,000 ft., although the airline probably might charge the credit card of the passenger who took a premium seat and refused to move back to the original seat).

    Anyone who believes that this is not stealing should imagine what would happen if he turned up at a hotel at, say, 11 p.m. and demanded to be given a room for free (or for the nominal cost of housekeeping) because the hotel wasn’t going to sell that room for the night anyway.

    Having pointed all of that out, of course, I express no view as to whether the airlines are helping themselves or hurting themselves with this kind of policy. Sometimes, you catch more bees with honey than you do with vinegar, and I recall a recent long-haul flight on which numerous passengers appreciated being upgraded from regular economy to the premium economy class just before the plane was about to take off; some might actually be inclined to spring for the extra couple of hundred dollars next time to have the same improved experience guaranteed.

  19. I was recently flying on Qantas. Before takeoff, the flight attendant made an announcement that there were a lot of empty seats. She said after takeoff, once the seat belt sign was off, we were free to take any seat we wanted.

  20. I pay extra and fly first class so I can be free from the humanity that feels they are owed more paying less than those who pay more to get more

  21. …another Karen that wants to get an upgraded for free…. I’m sure she throws the same complaint when she checks into a hotel, and doesn’t get an upgrade to a suite, just because it’s not booked and it’s vacant…
    small world problems…

  22. I used to fly United a lot -and now they are my last resort. United created this problem. These airlines used to have all seats with reasonable space. Then they created Economy Minus seating and charged a nominal fee for more space. Then they jacked up that fee to an unreasonable amount. There’s a reason there are empty seats and my flights on Southwest are almost always full.

  23. @rrrr, well said and I could not have expressed my feelings on this subject better myself. I second the opinion.

  24. Good. They should remove the seat cushions too. I’m so sick of people moving seats and asking me to move or switch seats. It’s a 45-minute flight. Figure your seat out before you get to the airport. Your kid will be fine sitting by strangers. Stop inventing unnecessary problems!

  25. It’s all about getting more revenue. Clearly if passengers know they can’t get a better seat for free, they’re more likely to pay for their seat preference before boarding, even when they are aware that many seats remain open.

    I’m more aggravated with airlines telling me to arrive to the airport early and then wait a long time in the terminal, where I have to pay $5 USD for a bottle of water and outrageous prices for bland stale food and any other provisions I might need or desire. It appears that the airlines or certainly the airports are profiting on such price gouging and controls are definitely needed.

  26. The airlines continue to suck the pleasure out of traveling. One little thing at a time. I actually remember when I looked forward to flying with comfortable seats, affordable rates or reasonably so, pleasant crew and civilized passengers. The most inept managed industry in the world !

  27. This is outrageous monopoly. If there was land route between USA and Australia, people had the option to drive. Here, no option but forced to fly with greedy companies who have shrinked seat size, legroom, toilet space , snack size and what not. Don’t be surprised if they start charging on basis of your weight

  28. I read these articles just for the pretentious comments. Most people replying sound like an episode of Rich Dicks

  29. Oh, I see an empty seat up in Business Class, (or First), is it ok if I take it?

    Related; I was on a recent UA flight from EWR to MCO a few weeks ago. Completely full. Gate agent made an announcement that due to full flight, people in groups 4 and higher may not be able to put their carry-on into the overhead. GA offered people who were in later groups the opportunity to board early if they agreed to checking their carry-on.

    One fellow stepped up, and he was in Basic Economy, no carry-on or checked bag is permitted. Only a personal item that can fit under the seat is allowed. His rollaboard was too large to fit. Fellow and GA had a lengthy discussion, and finally GA agreed to tag the bag.

    Passenger boarded early with carry-on. Instead of leaving his carry-on at the end of the jetway as instructed, he removed the tag, and boarded with his carry-on. He placed it in the overhead and took his seat.

    Yepp. He cheated, and karma will get him in the future.

  30. If you want open seating, fly Southwest or an equivalent. For the rest of the airline world, there are seating classes and they cost different amounts. This is not new – reminiscing about times gone by and how it was when I was a kid is a fool’s errand.

    This type of article is looking to generate clicks by trying to vilify the airlines for long standing and well known policies. It is disingenuous at best for an author who proclaims to be a “foremost expert” in airlines to publish and article about someone’s sense of entitlement.

    Moving within your section would never be denied. I have seen it happen hundreds of times. Moving to a more expensive seat just because it is open should not ever be allowed. Those that paid for a more expensive seat should be able to enjoy whatever perks there are in that section. If it is less populated, then good for them. There is a pricing structure and if you truly disagree with it, don’t fly that airline. Bad news for those that are shedding crocodile tears about this injustice, your selection of airlines is going to be reduced dramatically as almost all use a structure like this and have been for a long time.

    You get what you pay for – it is a fair system.

  31. United Airlines thinks that changing seats (not to extra legroom) is immoral. The economy seating on United is immoral.

  32. @RRRR please quote any language in a US part121 CoC which addresses seat saving, moving to different seats, cabin crew enforcement of these non-published policies, equality of service, the word “comfort”, and the words “pain” & “suffering”…..

    /judge smails

  33. Big reason reason why I drive whenever I can. I had this happen to me once and all it does is irritate customers. I absolutely hate flying and policies like this make it even more miserable.

  34. Gee. I have been doing it all wrong. Flying up front, where I pay for my extra baggage, food, beverages and carry on, priority boarding and lounge in MY TICKET, I should buy the cheapest fare, and zoom up front for free!
    My personal favorites are the people who come up and pretend to look out the window, then kick back the seat to be told to go back.
    Get on and shove their giant suitcase in overhead at seat 1A, when they are in 28B, so 1A has no room THAT THEY PAID FOR. Then yell at the flight attendants.
    Come up to the front lavatory and sit in the seat next to me for an hour. To be told to go back.

    My real favorite was the woman who came up while we were eating. « GEEEEEE that doesn’t look like our food…  and we don’t get silverware. »

    I paid for it. You can too. I save my money so I can have a nice flight, enjoy my seat, eat, take my luggage, in peace.

    You have that choice.

  35. If you book a hotel room with a garden view and ask the front office if there’s a room with sea view available and he asked for the upgrade an additional fee, you will say I will not pay for it because that room is empty and will not be used during my stay. So they must give it to you for free? Where is the logic to this? You payed for a service so it sounds logical that they ask you an additional fee for this upgrade. Upgrades come in general with extra services, like free drinks, a meal, snacks and the comfort. That counts not only in the hospitality business or aviation but in daily life as well. So get your shit together and pay for the service if you really want it otherwise stay the hell where you are.

  36. I’m not much of a government intervention person. Reading a lot of these comments has changed my tune a bit. It seems there are so many people who only want to buy cheap, cheap tickets, but then are mad when they have a cheap experience.

    I’m at the point where I would love it if the government mandated increased legroom and seat width, and even if we went back to the days of regulation. Because prices will skyrocket and we can go back to the days when most people couldn’t afford to fly. Won’t have to worry about all of these whiners wanting something for nothing any more. They won’t be able to fly in the first place. Can’t happen soon enough for the rest of us.

  37. United reserves the right to prohibit people from self-upgrading. End of discussion. We can argue all day about whether it’s immoral or not, and if it were up to me I’d let people move around within Economy/Economy plus once the door is closed since the airline wouldn’t really lose anything, but it’s their business decision to make if they still want to sell those seats after the door is closed. Maybe there should be more prominent signage to make it clear that certain seats are Economy Plus.

    What annoys me more is when people think they have the right to a seat that’s already occupied, and think it’s okay to pressure other passengers into switching seats with them.

  38. I stopped flying on United Airlines years ago. To Europe on a European carrier, Asia on an Asian carrier and Australia on an Australian carrier. Changing seats within your assigned grouping does not seem to exist. Hopefully the United Airlines “gouging passengers virus” does not spread.

  39. A denial of the opportunity to move seats could be related to a balance issue for the aircraft. This tends to happen on flights that are lightly sold. In order for the aircraft to perform the way the pilots have anticipated, the payload (people in the cabin and bags in the belly) needs to be spread out in the way that the flight has been planned for. Shifts of a few people, like when they go to the lavatory tend to not matter. When many people change seats, it can have a noticeable effect.

  40. If one has to pay extra for a “comfortable” seat, then the other seats are, by their definition, uncomfortable. Why are they charging as much as they do for uncomfortable seats?

    Here is a crazy idea: make every seat reasonably comfortable for an average-sized American instead of nickel and diming us over an extra couple of inches.

    If they make flying less of a nightmare they can charge more, people will travel more often, and more flights will be full. And if the seats are more comfortable, full flights wont be as unpleasant as they are now.

    Instead, the airlines continue their race to the bottom and we all suffer for it.

  41. I don’t do this nickel and dime nonsense. If United wants to act like a poverty airline they can join Frontier in the trash bin. I’ll stick with Delta and SWA.

  42. So were the tray tables open for take off? Is that not a no no? I didn’t think there was an exception for empty seats.

  43. Lol omg I just saw the comment about “balance”
    No, dude, people moving to a different seat isn’t going to make the plane sink, or whatever dumb reason you were thinking of the plane’s “balance”

  44. It is no wonder passengers are confused and frustrated. Yesterday I was looking on the United site and ran into 5 levels of economy and another several levels in the Econony Premiun section.

  45. If I rent a car that has been previously reserved and my basic car is not available, I always get an upgrade at no extra cost. Same thing for hotels. The problem with airlines is that they make the economy seats limited in width and leg room so you have to pay exorbitant prices for an upgrade with 4 extra inches. I too would fly first class, but I am not wealthy. I often fly for business, but my employer will not pay for upgrades. I am tired of the airlines nickel and diming customers to satisfy the shareholders ignoring the customers.

  46. Using this free market model… everything is for sale, you shalt not receive a single gram of baggage or a moderately more comfortable seat than you have paid for and to move one’s seat is considered ‘theft’ out of the starving mouths of airline executives.

    As a perpetual first class passenger who frequently does not avail of their lounge access, baggage allowance, permitted alcohol or Polaris breakfast, I should be entitled to compete with United and offer up my unwanted inclusions to other passengers?

  47. The callous treatment of airlines to passengers and passengers to each other, along with the fee for everything structure for domestic US flights, has caused us to choose ground travel as much as possible. Flying can be unpleasant OR expensive. It cannot be both. Throw in now the question of safety and forget it!

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