Travel Etiquette Tip: Give the middle seat the armrest!

A few weeks ago, my mom went to New York for work and said it was one of the worst flights she’s ever been on. It was a new plane, so the seats were a little bit smaller, oddly shaped, and hardly reclined at all. Worst of all, she was in the middle seat, and the people next to her took the armrests. It was a little bit understandable for the person in the window seat—that seat had no armrest at all on the other side. But the person on the aisle? Did he really need both armrests?

In my opinion, the right thing to do is let the person in the middle have the armrests. They have to suffer so much already, just let them have it! No matter if you have long legs, or whatever, they still have less room than you do! What’s even worse? Sitting in the middle and having the guy on your right jab you in the ribs with his elbow as he pushes your arm off the armrest, which happened to me once.

Other suggestions for showing the middle seat some love:

Help them when you can. Don’t make them reach over you to grab their beverage from the flight attendant. Be polite when they need to get up to use the restroom. Actually, now that I’m thinking about it, these are good etiquette tips for everyone.

Be aware of your personal space. And by extension, of the personal space of the person next to you. Their space is limited enough already without you leaning over to get stuff out of your bag and putting your head in their lap.

Readers, what do you do if you’re in the middle and can’t get an armrest? Suffer in silence? Ask politely to share? Arm wrestle?

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  1. Totally agree! I had always thought this was “assumed” … but I’ve also run into seatmates who seemed to make it a point to “claim” the arm rest space as theirs. In those cases, I try not to be confrontational but I slowly “inch” my way onto the armrest (e.g try to claim my “half” of it … as small as that may be!).

  2. I was on a flight last week where the other guy in my row insisted on sitting in the middle seat even though nobody had taken the window seat next to him. Awkward.

  3. Funny story, I had the middle seat last week from ATL to MIA and old man in window took the armrest and passed out most of the flight. I was pissed about it. Then he wakes up on final approach and starts talking to me. Nicest guy ever. Turns out he had been flying for over 20 hours since the day before and was coming from Australia to catch a cruise out of Miami. No wonder he passed out and took so much room. Poor guy was just simply exhausted and probably didn’t even realize it so I didn’t mind giving him the extra room after that point. So yes, I agree, give the middle person the armrest. It’s the right etiquette. Just don’t go ballistic or assume the other person is being a jerk. You never know what other reasons might be behind it.

  4. I also give up the armrest to the middle seat guy. I usually am passive aggressive if my neighbor is invading my personal space, but i think i have anger management issues associated with my perceived social conventions.

  5. The middle seat getting the armrests is at least a thing a polite person might just forget occasionally. Worse by far is the person behind you who forcibly pushes a reclined seat back up. If the polite social contract has been “check if person behind me is not eating or otherwise does not need the extra room, make eye contact to show my intention, then recline slowly” then the appropriate contention of the recline would be to politely ask me to put my seat back up until X time instead of shoving.

  6. A few months ago I was stuck in the middle with an armrest hog on the aisle. I slowly stretched out my leg and pressed it against his like I flirting with him or something. This made him sufficiently uncomfortable that he gave up the armrest and shifted away from me.

  7. My feeling is that armrest use should be based on the activities of the two people in question. When I am working on my laptop, I need that far-back armrest space to actually physically type, it is just not possible otherwise. At other times I don’t need it, or can reposition to use another section of the armrest. So I try to be conscious of what my neighbors are doing. If I need it and they don’t, I have no problem asking to use the armrest for an hour while I work.

  8. What about when being in an airplane with 2 seats (no middle seat)?. Both of us could have same right to use the armrest. I try just to place my elbow but all the time the other passenger is taking place of full armest w/o a word.

  9. 3 of my 4 flights this week were in the middle seat. men flanking me on either side, and none of them shared/gave me an armrest. i tried to sneak my elbow on it whenever i had room, and just rubbed arms until they got uncomfortable enough to give me an inch or two.

    i also like to wait until they get up to grab something from an overhead bin or go to the restroom. then i take it up completely because it’s only fair. 🙂

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