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. Uhhm @Neil it could have been his required crew meal not necessarily “your” steak. Really you should be grateful for any food at all. Peace.

  2. Having blocked seats by trays is a safety concern my stepdad trains united airline pilots. He’s a retired United airline pilot himself. During turbulence those trays must be stowed in flight and take off and landing.

  3. The whole seat situation with airlines has gotten a little ridiculous. When I started having to pay to sit next to my own toddler. I kind of gave up on the airlines. I used to fly weekly, and now I try to find any means to circumvent traveling by air when I travel.

    People just don’t want to play their games. That’s why major airlines are going out of business. Then they play the dumb act like they can’t understand the bad business leads to loss of customers.

    Traveling should be fun!

  4. I agree with the general sentiment expressed here. The staff should try being more accommodating. I’ve had a couple flights where I got sandwiched between two XXXL passengers and had less than half my own flight on flights over 5 hours. The staff did bloody nothing to accommodate. The choice of booking me in that situTion was a choice of the staff … I’d reserved a window seat but got bumped. There were open business class seats; but the staff willfully ignored my discomfort. I was forced to walk the aisles for 5 hours because I couldn’t sit in my seat without other people’s legs plastered against me on both sides, and both my arms crossed at my chest. There was a compassionate solution… bump me up to business. The staff chose not to allow it.

  5. This is a new comment. Please post. I agree with the general sentiment expressed here. The staff should try being more accommodating. I’ve had a couple flights where I got sandwiched between two XXXL passengers and had less than half my own flight on flights over 5 hours. The staff did bloody nothing to accommodate. The choice of booking me in that situTion was a choice of the staff … I’d reserved a window seat but got bumped. There were open business class seats; but the staff willfully ignored my discomfort. I was forced to walk the aisles for 5 hours because I couldn’t sit in my seat without other people’s legs plastered against me on both sides, and both my arms crossed at my chest. There was a compassionate solution… bump me up to business. The staff chose not to allow it.

  6. Well done because i paid extra for room leg but yet there are others don’t pay so they can get a free seat and sure did sat one person bye me and she got it for free thats not far when i paid $70 fot mine with united Airlines

  7. It makes me see red when i have paid $180 for extra leg room and some cheap person got in that seat for free….last trip was to Geneva. I paid extra and the seat next to me was empty. The guy behind me got in that seat – stewardess let him – and the entire time he kept getting on his knees turning around talking to his wife behind him. He kept bumping me snd kept me from sleeping because he was so loud.

    NO WAY A FREEBIE SHOULD BE GIVEN UNLESS THEY ALSO GIVE IT TO ME – BY WAY OF A CREDIT because what they are saying is that this seat is really free – we overcharged you

  8. If I’ve paid $125 for an extra comfort seat and somebody who didn’t pay for upgrade tries to take one of those seats I would be pissed.

  9. Former FA…. what ever happened to ani accurate manifest?? if there was an emergency, how so we identify a pax if they changhed seats?
    Not so much a disater, what about a medical condition?
    Or if the plane wi dow broke and you got half sucked out the window( my team responded to this one) or if the door plug blew off?
    I am a firm beluevwr in stay in your seat.
    No free changes for that open plus seat or exit row. Not fair to those who biy or earn it
    And yea, if you want a certain seat, buy it.

  10. I don’t even like it when people are upgraded into first. Sit where you paid to sit. I did my time in the back of the plane, middle seats and red eye flights n all. ‍♀️

  11. I have flown for 45 years. Bags and seats have always been included in the airfare until someone came up with the great idea to make more money. No customer service anymore. Airlines would rather make more money than provide a customer with a pleasant flying experience,

  12. By their own logic, it sounds like the airlines are stealing from procedures by cramming in more rows of seats

  13. I’m legitimately surprised by all the “Just another freeloader trying to get something for free!” comments. They didn’t sell the seats and it wouldn’t kill them to let people spread out a little bit. Economy seats are awful. I could understand if it were Business/First Class vs. Economy, given all of the extras you get in those cabins, but it’s Economy Plus. If I were in Plus and someone moved up from Economy, I would literally not care. I paid to guarantee my level of service. If someone happens to luck out and have a flight that’s empty enough where they can grab a seat in Plus, more power to them. Why would I get bent out of shape over someone scoring a very slight upgrade in the very rare occasion of a not-full flight?

  14. I just flew a paid business class ticket to Panama and there were four empty business class seats. I could not believe that nobody got upgraded for free with their status. It was shocking to me that there were no gold or silver or even platinum on the plane to get upgraded into Those UA seats. 6/9/24!

  15. This is rediculous! Why should anyone care once the plane is in flight the chances of empty seats is small so those who wanted to move bought cheap seats. The people who paid for premium cheap seats had the peace of mind that they could stretch out. Jeeeez, it’s a flight nothing life tbreatening. Calm down people

  16. If your going to a concert and buy the cheapest ticket…it does not entitle you to the most costly seat because it is empty.
    What is wrong with people? If you want the seat pay the price. It is not free.

  17. @ Janet and the other freeloader-theme commenters. Your argument boils down to this: because I didn’t get something, nobody should. When really, you should be angry at the airline for charging you. Not the person who may simply have the grace of good fortune at the end of the day. Most things are not a zero-sum game. Causing other people grief does not undo what you’ve been through. It literally does NOTHING for you except to give you some kind of emotional feeling of superiority. But that’s something a child should care about, not an adult.

    Now let’s talk about logic: are you equally bothered by people who happen to make a purchase during a big sale when you paid full price three weeks ago? Are those people cheapskates taking something from you? How about the folks who bid on those business class seats at the last minute? You will have paid $1000+, and they might get it for a couple of hundred bucks extra. Are they hurting you too?

  18. I have only flown first or business class for the past 15 years. Not because I am rich, but because I do not what the aggravation of dealing with some of the issues that people deal with in coach. Airlines are a for profit business. Even the government asks you to pay more for an expedited pass port. Its not a free for people if they are slow. Same goes for the fast pass at Disney, or a suite at a hotel. You don’t get a free room upgrade even if the suite is empty.
    If you do not like coach seats stop being cheap! If you cant afford it, but want it, reconsider your trip. Or be happy with what you paid for.

  19. I applaud UA and the F/A’s who protect the integrity of an upgraded cabin/ seat regardless if unoccupied/ empty. You get what you pay for. Just because your row is full, and sitting elbow2elbow, does not justify moving to an open seat in an upgraded cabin/ section. This applies to all upgraded seats whether it be FC/ BC, PP, E+.
    Maybe the next time I plan on going to a movie or a ballgame, and show up 30 minutes after it started, I’ll ask the doorman to let me in for free because there are open seats.
    If you want it,…”Pay for it!”
    …it’s simple as that! Quit your whining and complaining.

  20. For those wondering why someone couldn’t just move to these seats for free within the same cabin. The seats pictured are bulkhead seats that cost extra.

    The person complaining could have moved – if they paid for the upgraded seat.

  21. I’m one of those customers that actually pay for extra legroom, so yes, I believe that you should have to pay to upgrade even if the plane is empty because it’s really not fair for us to pay and then all the sudden you get to jump in for free.

  22. Wow I’m so surprised at some of these moaning bull rot comments. Comparing flight seats to cars to the price of their own seat to their jealousy even saying so what is she’s stuck in between 2 people. Jump down off that high horse people far out, it wouldn’t bother me if someone got bumped up to a seat in the area that I paid extra for. Good on them I say the seat was empty anyways and the company really isn’t losing money because of it, they lost money because they weren’t able to fill the seat in the first place.

  23. Ok, United… economy compared to Toyota and plus compared to Lexus is not the same thing… it’s more like Corolla to Camry. Your economy is compared to GM: bad product and unreliable and business is at best Tesla. Don’t compare an inferior US product to a superior Japanese one regardless of Toyota or Lexus.

  24. I agree with United, if I paid extra then someone sat next to me that didn’t pay is unfair. I got lucky not having the seat filled nextcto me ( bonus) and paid extra, then I have to sit next to another preson that paid less.

  25. So the airlines have priced themselves out of a full plane and the passengers are mad at each other for taking advantage of the airlines’ stupidity?

  26. If an upgraded seat is unoccupied, then it remains for sale. Once you allow those seats to be up for grabs simply because they are empty, you’d be opening up a huge can of worms. The premium cabin/ section would lose value. Seats are what the airline sells. Just pay for it, and it’s yours. The analogy’s made in previous comments are valid and do make a valid point. People who argue this are perfect examples of entitlement, I’ll do what I want,…rules apply to others but not me,…no one tells me what I can, or cannot do, if I don’t get what I want, or if I don’t get the answer I want to hear,…then it’s bad service. Now this kind of attitude is when we should say “Get off your High Horse!”

  27. Wow, so many commenters that have been well trained by greedy upcharge airlines. I bet that most of them will just suck it up when the airlines eventually make them stand up to fly..

  28. I’m reading the comments from my home in the Scottish highlands and I have to say that I’m more than a little amused at how dreadful some of you are when it comes to basic spelling and punctuation. Seriously folks, maybe have a quick glance over your comment before posting!
    Also, I think it’s fine to switch to an empty seat provided it’s of the same type you originally booked. So, economy for economy etc. Trying to blag an upgraded seat when other folk have had to pay a premium for that type is just scummy and shows how cheap you are. If you want extra legroom then pay for it, it doesn’t matter that premium seats are unoccupied. It’s basic decency. There are so many entitled people who feel they can take whatever they want from life as though it’s their right and all it does is show how rude and ignorant they are. I’m 46 and it feels like people, (in the West), have binned manners, courtesy and respect over the last 20 years or so.

  29. Your logic is faulty. Besides the fact that passengers should not be allowed to take a seat they didn’t pay for, there is the (more serious) effect it has on those who DID pay extra. I paid to sit in an extra legroom economy seat, and because those seats cost extra, that section of economy is more sparsely occupied. For instance, maybe the middle seat next to me is empty. Or BOTH seats next to me. No one besides me paid extra to sit in that row. To then let basic economy passengers move there for free now detracts from my flying experience, because they’re crowding into a more expensive section of economy, detracting from my experience. I pad to be there. You didn’t. Stay in your seat.

  30. Why does everyone want something for free. If you didn’t pay for something, you don’t get it.
    I wouldn’t go into a restaurant and say, “hey, you probably can’t sell that steak today so I should get it for free.”
    Rules are rules. If you want more leg toom, pay for it like everyone else, irregardless of whether it is empty.

  31. Would you say moving from economy to Business or First Class is justified just because there are empty seats?
    I can understand asking to move within your cabin class,but to upgrade yourself due to empty seats is just trashy.

  32. Seems most complain about someone getting something for free. Bet if it was them the story would change. Extra leg room lol..You complainers are why we sit in first class for free with millions of air miles. Also free with a Delta platinum card.

  33. If there are that many empty seats, then weight and balance is certainly a factor. I’m also with “if you didn’t pay for it, you shouldn’t get it” folks. Even if you got a free upgrade with status or used points for that seat, you’ve certainly already *paid* for it 10 times over on your previous flights.

  34. I think they are actually missing out on more opportunity: before my partner had been in a premium economy seat they thought it was a scam, a little leg room for $30 extra.

    Then we got the seats as part of my elite package once and now I’m always stuck buying the seats because they liked it so much.

    Maybe instead of letting people just mozy over to premium economy, they upgrade people (especially those with even just a loyalty number) until it’s full. That encourages people to be on the loyalty program, encourages people to buy the seats because they know they won’t be empty, AND lets people see that the seats aren’t just some scam (I mean ignoring they intentionally make standard economy awful to encourage the upgrade).

  35. So you want something for nothing? Who’s it gonna hurt? It hurts all the passengers who legitimately paid for the upgrade. If you want to be cheap, you will always piss people off. And just because it’s open, doesn’t mean it’s your to take because you didn’t pay for it. Honestly it smacks of entitlement.

  36. “We are here for your safety, so we gonna make it extra hard for you peons to evacuate in case of an emergency. You needed to pay more to stay safe. Now imma go to the galley and do my nails while you losers think about your life choices “

  37. I take a middle ground here. If its a 3 or 4-row economy plus, then people should be allowed to take seats there so long as they are *not* immediately next to a passenger who paid the extra fee. For example if someone is in a regular economy seat and they want to take a middle economy plus seat, that would make the paid passengers less comfortable. However if that person is 2 seats away from the paid passenger, they really shouldnt care.

  38. Can’t believe this is an issue. If you don’t pay for something why do you expect to get it for free? This is the problem with this country. Rules aren’t followed anymore and if we don’t get what we any we just post it on social media and hope there is enough backlash so that a company/organization changes or offers sone kind of compensation.

  39. I always fly first class and I do it on purpose for my comfort so I don’t have to deal with the riffraff back there. I have been on flights where they have let military people move forward if there’s extra seats and first class and why would I care for your service. I don’t think that just anybody should be able to move up there to the upgraded seats I think the stewardess should make the judgment call and for the people that are whining if you can’t afford first class then stay in your lane. Now for the open seats in coach, I think people should be able to move around in that situation

  40. Is it not a complete lack of safety precautions in leaving all the emergency seats open. I know most flights that have an empty emergency isle, the stewardess wants someone the help an move to aid on safe disembarking of the flight.
    If theyre all empty emergency seats and all are empty, sounds like a lawsuit in making

  41. It is like goin to a football game where u bought a regular seat in the end zone and see open seats on the 50 yard line ..you cannot jus go to the 50 yard line and sit there or another example you go to a baseball game and see open (empty) seats behind home plate you cannot jus go and take those seats.. basketball.. you see empty seats on the court by the players youre not allowed to take those seats.. its simple.. its a product that UAL sells and passengers pays for.. so its like stealing.. u want the space.. then pay for it.

  42. I usually order special meal in economy (in the good years when it was available everywhere most usually seafood, now diabetic/low carb or vegetarian) so it is not as easy to switch.

    But if the seat was empty and next to mine, like one row to the front, I would definitely try to.

  43. This is consistent with the time I saw a United FA essentially profile someone who had moved into the next row on a mostly empty flight – looked at him and said incredulously “wait, YOU’RE sitting there??”, then proceeded to look up the map and make him move back to my row. When I made *one* snarky comment about it, she then threw a fit at me and came up to me *multiple times* to yell at me for standing up for the other passenger. She was unilaterally causing a scene and holding up takeoff when we all just wanted to get to our destination. I think a different FA had to talk her down.

    Anyway I pay extra for upgrades/exit row almost every flight and I couldn’t care less about passengers moving into those seats for free. As long as they’re respectful and not disrupting others, I want everyone around me to have as pleasant a flight as possible. If you don’t agree, maybe take that up with your therapist and stop projecting your antisocial tendencies onto others.

  44. Gary, please get your entitlement attitude in check. No airline owes you or anyone else flying in any class anything except to get you safely to where you’re flying. If the food isn’t to your liking, fly another airline. And commentators on here are correct– people need to sit in their assigned seats, period. It is not your place to tell the airlines how to do business.

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