Whose Arm Rest Is It Anyway? Here’s Why the Middle Seat Passenger Gets Both

The one thing that can give you a better flight — more than anything else — is to have more personal space. An empty middle seat next to you improves your perception of everything else. And it turns out that you can even buy yourself an empty middle seat next to you on all of the large US airlines.

If you don’t do this, in today’s environment, you’re very likely to have someone seated next to you. Planes are just about as full as they’ve ever been in the U.S.

The worst position on the plane is the middle seat. I’ll give up legroom to avoid a middle seat. There are ideas for how to make the middle seat experience better but today it’s pretty bad.

Spirit Airlines once gave out bonus miles to customers in the middle seat, but I’m not whether more Spirit Airlines miles are a blessing or a curse.

Airlines charge extra for the ‘better’ coach seats. It would be nice if they gave you something extra when you’re stuck in one of the seats that’s worse than average — a free cocktail, free inflight internet, or a discount on your next trip. At a minimum airlines could make the unwritten rule that the coach passenger gets priority for two arm rests explicit.

In a traditional domestic coach configuration with 3 seats on either side of the aisle there are four arm rests. There’s not enough arm rests for each person to get more than one. The arm rests in the middle have to be allocated. But how?

  • A person of size gets arm rest priority because there’s simply not much they can do about it, no real physical alternative, that’s just the reality.

  • However in most cases the arm rests in the middle both go to the person in the middle seat. Both the passenger in the window and in the aisle get one arm rest. And the person in the middle gets first dibs on both.

  • If the passenger in the aisle and in the window got two, that would leave the person in the middle with none. The passenger with the worst position is the one in the middle seat. Both the aisle seat passenger and the window seat passenger have the advantage of no one else to one side of them, and potentially space to lean into.

  • There’s no logical ‘sharing principle’ where the person in the middle and person on either side split time with the arm rest. First, that is too complicated and would require individual negotiation. Second it would leave the person in the middle with no arm rest at all from time to time, while their neighbors each had one or two.

This isn’t a written rule, and it isn’t enforceable. We need to be courteous to fellow passengers, and this is the principle that gets us there.

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. What about on the C-Series (now Airbus A220) where the middle seats are an inch wider than the others?

  2. I agree with ya. However often it starts with the armrest, and then halfway into their flight their elbows are 3 inches over the armrest….

  3. Yes! I’ve often wished airlines would make an announcement or publish a guideline of some sort to improve this issue. When seated in the aisle or window, I will concede the armrest to the middle person when one is present. I would appreciate the same when roles are reversed.

  4. When I first started flying for work 20 years ago this is one of the first rules my boss told me – always give your innermost armrest to the guy stuck in the middle. I’ve tried to stick to it since then.

    I also agree with “I’ll give up legroom to avoid a middle seat.” Complementary upgrade, my ass. I’m still unclear how Delta thinks a middle seat in Comfort+ is better than a coach aisle.

  5. I respectively disagree. I find my flight uncomfortable if i only can use one armrest. My solution has been to let the middle person pick where on the armrest he or she prefers to rest their forearm. Usually this leaves the very rear of the armrest free. I then place my elbow there. No one has every seen to have a problem with this.

  6. It’s pretty clear in my mind. The aisle passenger- and that’s ALWAYS me when I fly- can lean just a bit toward the aisle. And the window passenger can lean against the bulkhead.
    It’s the middle seat passenger who is stuck with no choices. So they get preference in my world.
    Just don’t push over the armrests, or lean into me.

  7. Gary,
    Great blog with great information, provided in a very courteous and even handed manner.
    Good point about middle seats and armrests.
    With a bad knee, we frequently buy the middle seat in coach, so 3 seats for 2 people, and it is usually less in cost than 2 business or first class seats.
    So, kinda almost first class.
    Thanks for a great job.
    Keep it up.

    Tom Forte

  8. I’ve had a flight attendant announce (I think on Delta, but I’m not sure) that passengers in middle seats were entitled to both armrests. I find the “policy” fair, as long as they don’t spill over, as mentioned above.


  9. As someone who always books aisle seats I disagree 100%. The window seat is the worst for those of us who need to get up frequently to use the restroom. Even for a single visit it is one more person to disturb. I will take a Middle any day over a Window seat in a 3-3 3-3-3, 3-3, or even a 3-4-3 config. And yes, I will take both armrests…

    @Ben – I used to take aisle seats in the back, but now I would take a Middle E+ first. Would rather have the extra legroom – and the aisle occupant will just have to deal with getting up when I need to get out. Fortunately I am rarely forced into this position.

  10. Anyone know whatever happened to the “double decker” armrest that was developed several years ago? It was developed by James Lee at MIT and it gave both the middle seat, as well as both window and aisle passengers access to two armrests.

    Why is this not standard????

  11. As someone who always books window seats I disagree 100% (although I have no idea what I’m disagreeing with 🙂 ). I’d rather gouge my own eyeballs out with a hot fire poker than sit in an aisle seat. People banging into you with their bodies and their carry-ons, getting your foot run over by a beverage cart, drinks spilled on you, people passing garbage over you to the flight attendants, getting hit by a bowling ball from the overhead while someone removes something else, scalding drinks being poured just inches from your ear, and of course people climbing over you to get out; all the perks of an aisle seat. The absolute terror of a how much of that cup of coffee being passed to the window seat will end up in your lap. No thanks, gimme that window seat. I will take a Middle any day over an Aisle seat in any configuration.

    Oh yeah, middle seat should get priority for armrests.

  12. I agree with all of the points regarding “who gets the armrests” except for the person of size. The person of size can do something about their size, they can buy two seats. Everyone is happy. I would like to throw in, in addition to the airlines publicly stating that the middle seat is entitled to both armrests, that the airlines state that the bulkhead seats get priority in overhead space since all of their bags must be stowed.

  13. Gary: I disagree. I try to sit in aisle seats and invariably I cannot use the aisle armrest because of carts and people walking up/down aisle, smacking into me. I think armrest belongs to aisle, then next armrest belongs to middle and then armrest against plane is for window. Or be nice and share (part of trip you have it, part of it the other person) or not use armrests at all and keep all of your body in the seat, including arms.

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