United Airlines Flight Attendant Threatens Passengers Over Armrests: Whose Space Is It Anyway?

A United Airlines passenger reports that on a recent flight, a flight attendant announced rules for using the armrests. And the flight attendant actually got it wrong.

In economy on a domestic (narrowbody mainline aircraft flight) there are generally three seats on each side of the plane. Correct default armrest allocation is as follows:

  • The passenger at the window gets the armrest next to the window
  • The passenger at the aisle gets the armrest next to the aisle
  • The passenger in the middle gets two armrests

Also, for the enterprising amongst you, armrests can be shared using an armrest divider.

According to this announcement, however, no passenger is entitled to more than one armrest.

  • The middle seat passenger gets the one next to the window seat passenger
  • The aisle seat passenger gets the one between them and the middle seat passenger
  • And the armrest at the aisle may not be used, for the convenience of flight attendants and other passengers.

And passengers were threatened that deviations from this – “armrest drama” – would not be “tolerated.”

[Flight attendant] made an announcement right after boarding to clarify who gets to use which armrest on the flight. To my surprise, he was very emphatic that no person gets two armrests. He explained every person is supposed to use the armrest on their right (and the left for the other side) and keep the armrest on the aisle clear for carts and people walking down the plane. He emphatically stated that no armrest drama would be tolerated.

Feeling sorry for all the folks in middle seats on this flight, although mentioned to my seat mate she was welcome to both armrests.

To be clear, this is not an official United Airlines announcement. The remarks reported by the passenger represent freelancing by the flight attendant.

Passengers use armrests at the aisle flight after flight, day after day, on airline after airline – without significant deleterious effect. For most of the flight no one is trying to pass by, and having an arm on the armrest beside the aisle doesn’t get in the way of their doing so.

Further, getting bumped by a cart in the aisle is a hazard of the aisle seat, and it’s not just your arm it’s broad shoulders too if you’re short or slumped. A better announcement might just be stating, as the cart moves down the aisle, to ‘please watch your elbows as I bring the cart down the aisle.’

Ultimately there is no published rule on use of armrests. Airlines install them to be used. The courteous thing is for the middle seat passenger to get two. However this is ultimately left to the passengers to sort through.

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. This must be the same man-princess/idiot that says: “And for this we thank you” after every sentence. ….then disappears for the entire flight behind the drawn curtain in the forward galley.

  2. While I think your suggestions have merit, unless you can be a lot more specific about where they came from as they simply appear to have been invented by you and I’d avoid anointing myself as the rule maker, a perspective that the FA should consider as well.

  3. I overpower the person next to me an use both. Most people especially women won’t stand up to me.

  4. These posts and hostile questions pitting people against FA’s are getting old.

  5. No, the middle seat does not get both armrests. That’s insane. Those armrests are shared. Otherwise the middle seat would be the best seat, which it certainly isn’t. Don’t like it? Don’t fly basic economy, or book sooner.

  6. I guess the plane would divert and have me offloaded because I would not comply.

    Do you think a captain would be willing to do that?

  7. Why do I suspect that the aircraft wasn’t a widebody, but the flight attendant was?

  8. @Beach
    It depends. If the captain is the “Servant Leader” then yes, you’re going to Omaha.

  9. Never had these PROBLEMS in the ’60’s and early ’70.

    The issue is greed by the US airlines, selecting seats that are too small, people getting BIGGER, and MAX planes built like rockets with wings too far back.

    I try to avoid United, Never Max. Try to select AirBus and EU Airlines. End of PROBLEM.

  10. The middle seat gets both arm rests is a piece of long standing etiquette that so many people seem to have forgotten these days or more alarmingly based on these comments, may have never been taught, like staying to the right when passing someone on a sidewalk/staircase, the person who got to the stop sign intersection first gets to go first. It’s small recompense for being sandwiched by people on both sides in a 17-18 inch seat and not having having direct aisle access.

  11. Been flying since the 1960s. Yes, I’m old. Never heard of this rule or convention or whatever one wants to call it.

    I’ve always either lightly shared the middle seat armrests or not at all.

    FAs should stay in their wheelhouse and quit trying to dictate what they don’t control.

  12. The standard etiquette is the first one mentioned: the middle seat passenger gets both armrests as compensation for being in the worst seat.

  13. The “middle seat gets both armrests” is a long standing convention that arose to make for the most equitable division of the seats’ (ever-shrinking, depressingly small) resources.

    While it’s been around for a long time, it gained significant notoriety after the Australian comedian Jim Jefferies did a bit in one of his stand-up sets on it. This was included in one of his Netflix specials and went viral. It was later reproduced in an episode of his FX show “Legit”. This caused it to go viral again, and ever since it’s become one of the unwritten laws of etiquette. As with all the laws of etiquette, they are about allowing people to harmoniously coexist as best as possible. And thus they are more “strong suggestions” rather than immutable rules. And breaking them isn’t going to get you thrown in prison, it just pretty much makes you an a-hole, and might come with a social cost.

    Think of it less like “I’m not allowed to randomly punch people in the face”, as that would get me arrested, and more like “I should take showers and wear deodorant”, as not doing so will make people dislike me.

    For anyone interested here is a link to that hilarious bit from his FX show. I chose this one rather than the standup as it’s slightly more SFW… But it’s still got some course language, so depending on your particular situation be careful opening it:


  14. Why do you hate United so much and post garbage like this? Better yet, why do you post so much sensationalist garbage now? Who hurt you at the airlines?

  15. Grez, looks like someone would be happier over at One Champagne Bottle at a Time, aka One Luxury Chaffeur Driven Car a Time aka, One First Class Suite at a Time.

  16. @Jean-Baptiste Grenouille – What is this garbage about MAX ‘wings too far back’ and what does that have to do with armrests?

    Do you realize that Airbus own pilots crashed as A320, and that EASA will certify a gas turbine engine to CS-E without it even having to fly on an airplane?

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