United Airlines Says It’s Immoral to Move to a Better Seat While Inflight

When there’s an empty seat on a plane you like better than yours, can you switch? Different airlines take different approaches, and for the ones that say ‘no’ that’s a relatively recent change. It’s no surprise customers are confused.

  • Years ago open seats were pretty much fair game. I certainly moved rows on long haul flights growing up in search of a bunch of empty seats where I could lay down.

  • Southwest Airlines still has open seating, you can take any seat you wish. You can choose any seat that’s open when you board (and they’ll sell earlier boarding). However once on it’s plane it’s Lord of the Flies. Some passengers save seats for others who are boarding later. Others put fake crumpled up tissues on the middle seat so no one will sit there.

  • However United, Delta, and American all monetize seat assignments, selling you the specific seat you may want. Each of those takes a different tact though.

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.

American wants to sell you extra legroom seats, but leaves it up to flight attendants’ discretion whether to keep passengers from moving into empty seats.

At United the practice is customers aren’t supposed to move to extra legroom seats without paying.

One confused United customer thought they should be able to change to an open seat in the economy cabin (that had more legroom). They were told no by a flight attendant and took to twitter.

United doesn’t allow it because,

  • They sell these seats
  • They want customers to pay for them
  • If customers get them free, and see others getting them free, more people may take that change instead of paying

So it’s the airline’s revenue-maximizing strategy. It’s their business, their rules. Instead of saying that, however, United tried to make a moral case and – I think – fails badly

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 that is wrong. 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.

This may be the first time United slimline economy seats have ever been compared to a Lexus, although two years ago I heard a similar argument from a flight attendant comparing Economy Plus to a Mercedes.

This is also a weak argument. 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.

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.

Comparing it to stealing can’t be right, 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.

Since norms vary across airlines and have only recently changed it’s not a moral failing of passengers who don’t know or understand the position that any given airline takes here. On the contrary, it’s incumbent on the airline to explain in clear terms what their policy is and why rather than suggesting a passenger wanting to move is doing something untoward.

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. It’s the airlines that created the differences in legroom and all this consternation… They shouldn’t be able to weild that as a tool to keep some passengers jammed into small seats when it’s not necessary…and no one who bought the extra legroom had a guarantee that the seat next to them would be empty. They simply bought the GUARANTEE that they would get more legroom. That someone else gets it for free should not be an issue for those passengers. After all, they got the legroom they paid for.

  2. I was in a Pobeda Airlines flight from VKO to AER last year. Last minute purchase and couldn’t web check in due to some language issues on the site. Got allotted a middle seat (all economy configuration). Boarding completed, and the aisle seat was empty. So I moved to it. FA came across and said you can’t sit here. I just gave him a “wow, really!” expression, remembered “this is Russia” and went back to my middle seat.

  3. There’s an easy solution. Give the flight attendant a credit card machine and tell the self-upgrading person to hand over their credit card to pay for the upgrade. No reason this transaction could not be executed even after the aircraft is in flight. The bottom line would be: you can pay in advance, or you can pay on the aircraft, but you always have to pay to sit in the more expensive seats.

  4. United continues to show that they have poor customer service.

    I pay for extended legroom. It’s painful to sit in the tiny seats that are free or less expensive.

    I haven’t been on many flights with empty seats. If there are flights with consistently empty seats, the schedule will change to make the flights full.

  5. On a recent Delta flight, the 2 exit rows were completely empty, yet rows directly in front were full. Delta does charge for these seats but once the door closed, I offered to sit in an exit row for safety reasons. The flight attendant could give her required speech and had a volunteer to help in case of an emergency. It was a mutual benefit. Thank you Delta for being customer centered.

  6. Flight attendants do have the ability to sell upgrades from Economy to Economy plus on United. This customer didn’t want to pay for it. UA is in the right here. If I paid an extra fare for a seat in Economy Plus and find out I could’ve saved the money and just sat there for free, I’d be annoyed.

  7. Charlie, we have credit card machines that enable us to charge for the upgrade. Most, if not all, refuse to pay the upgrade fee.

  8. It’s no different than being seated in a restaurant. Just because the “Chef’s table” is available doesn’t mean you can just grab it. Simple solution: When boarding the plane, kindly ask the FA is changing seat is a possibility. Looks less like entitlement, just because it’s there, doesn’t mean it’s for you.

  9. I’m sorry; I disagree with the author. UA should not have to justify or explain why customers cannot move to whatever seat they want to just because it’s empty. The author’s logic is twisted and confused, just like the “confused” passenger who “thought they should be able to change to an open seat in the economy cabin” because it had more legroom.

    No. They should “not be able to” because they “want” to. If UA wants to incorporate a system that allows people to pay for a different seat on the spot, that might be the way to handle it. The fact that it’s “different” on American and Southwest is moot.

    I was on a plane where a couple in economy had spied two seats in economy plus and just assumed they could sit in them. (On United.) The stewardess had to accompany back to their original seats saying that if they wanted to PAY for the nicer seats, they could. They did not of course; they just wanted them.

    I don’t think there is anything at all wrong with comparing seats on a plane to types of cars. That’s what the seats are, aren’t they? Economy or luxury. People have a bizarre sense of entitlement and can’t understand why they can’t have everything they want when they want it.

    I understand the airline’s position well. I don’t like UA, but I understand it. If I paid for a seat in Economy Plus (which I have in the past) and there’s an empty seat next to me that someone from Economy thinks they should be able to sit in without paying for it just because it’s open… uh… no. Sorry.

    I rarely side with airlines, but this time, I do.

  10. However the flight attendant is stuck with mad passengers that cause a scene when they had to pay for that seat and others just take it for free. So one rule for all – you get what you paid for . Your seat in your cabin. Don’t give the flight attendant a harder job than what they have . Next economy want to move to business class seats too because it’s empty . Rules are rules .

  11. It’s very simple logic. If you purchased Balcony tickets at a Broadway show and after the show started, saw that there were seats available in the Orchestra section, would you expect to be moved there so that you could better see the show? Well, I guess it depends on how you were raised.
    I would not expect any airline to subsidize my travel.

  12. Hawaiian has the easiest to understand process, or so they did when we flew SYD to HON last year. They madk it very clear during pre-flight announcements that you’re required to sit in assigned seats for take-off and landing, due to W&B, but once the seat belt sign is turned off, you may relocate for comfort, other than not taking seats in another cabin type (ex: coach pax can’t move up into a first seat). They announce when it is time to move back to assigned seats shortly before landing. No confusion, no hassle, gotta love the simplicity of it!

  13. I have another take.

    I use miles (purchased) to fly Business to Asia on AS (on CX). But AS only gives main cabin seats on connecting flights.

    When I fly AA Business (Qatar) the connecting flights on AS are in “First”.

    Really hate that AS does not see the award holistically. Am seriously reconsidering my loyalty.

  14. United airlines says that moving to a better seat when the plane is already in the air is immoral. While I agree that economy or coach passengers should not move to a vacant first class seat, I don’t understand why moving to a slightly better seat (such as an aisle) is considered “immoral” by United.

    But since we’re discussing morality, it’s immoral for an airline to overbook flights and bump passengers who have already paid to fly. It’s immoral to nickel and dime customers for every little thing. It’s immoral to decrease legroom and reduce the size of already small bathrooms to maximize profits. And it’s CERTAINLY immoral to force a passenger to sit in an area covered in dog feces, or to drag a paying passenger off a plane.

  15. The flight attendants have a way of charging the customers once the door is closed and in fact can charge people once they are in the air. It is one rule for all. If someone paid for a seat with extra leg room on economy plus, then noticed bob got to move to the window seat across the aisle and didnt have to pay $60, he wouldn’t be too happy. I don’t understand why it’s so hard to understand that you get what you pay for? Flight attendants already have a hard enough job dealing with the flying public, and mind you we just had 9/11 and remember what the actual flight attendant role is beyond customer service. Stop making their lives harder than it already is by complaining and making them think they will get in trouble with your tweets…

  16. I have seen passengers with status get really mad because someone moved into a seat and didn’t pay for it, or use points. To the extent they tell the crew they are going to report them for allowing this to happen.
    So now the crew has a choice to deal with
    1.passenger who paid to sit in a seat area that cost them more money, or points
    2. have a passenger who didn’t pay or have any loyal status get mad at them.
    All the crew really wants to do is shut the door so the other 100+ people won’t be mad because the crew is trying to make two passengers happy.
    Also avoiding to explain to a supervisor
    A. why a flight was late.
    B.Why a passenger who has loyalty, and a financial investment is now upset.
    C. Why a passenger who has zero status is now on twitter saying the crew was rude. All on a day off when they should be enjoying their time off teaching their many cats how to synchronize swim.

  17. It’s not immoral in the least for airlines to protect their products. You get what you pay for, and if you did not pay for an extra revenue seat, you are NOT entitled to sit there. Even if it’s going empty.

    Think of it like box seats at a sporting event. The game is going to happen even if the box is empty. That doesn’t mean you get to move there if you have tickets for nosebleed seats. You don’t get to jump a turnstile at the subway because the train is going regardless. I am not sure why people think planes are somehow exempt from this basic principle.

    If the airlines allowed people who only paid base fare to move up to extra revenue seats after take off, it dilutes the product. Less people would buy it and take their chances. The airline is a business, not a public utility or social service. They are not obligated to harm their revenue streams because of the public’s desire to get something for nothing.

    And for those who claim it is immoral for airlines to prevent people from doing this, perhaps you would prefer that they revert to the revenue structure of 30 years ago and you can pay thousands of dollars for your ticket from LA to NY instead. There is a reason you can fly across the country for less than 400 dollars. It’s due to value added services. It has NOT become cheaper to run airlines. They have to make a profit, and if they have reduced the base ticket prices, that revenue needs to be made up elsewhere: Bag fees, seat selection fees, purchase on board meals, drink charges, extra classes of service.

    So by all means, keep griping about how they nickel and dime you while you buy the cheap fares.

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