Being asked to change seats

Flying home last week was an interesting experience. One of the exciting things was that it was the first domestic AA flight I’ve 7-21-14-4been on that has individual entertainment systems at each seat. That certainly made the four hour flight more fun! But the most interesting stuff happened at the beginning.

On this particular trip I was gone for a week. After a long week away from home I hoped I’d get upgraded, but flying on Friday I knew the chances were slim. Since I had a short time to get to my connecting flight I picked a seat up front; and since I had tons of work to do I needed an aisle. As we were waiting to board, the gate agent called me up. Did I get lucky and get upgraded? I wondered as I made my way to the counter. Alas, no. She asked if I would switch seats so a mother and child could sit together. My new seat would still be an aisle, but would be in the exit row. I was a little worried about my connection, but she assured me there would be plenty of time to make it. So I got on the plane, stowed my gear, and sat down.

The plane was mostly full when I woman stopped at my row. I stood up, assuming she needed to get into the middle seat. She then said that her boyfriend was in the middle seat across the aisle, and would I please be willing to switch so that they could sit together? I told her that unfortunately I had to work and needed access to my bag. She asked if I was sure, I said I was, and she sat down. She then leaned across me to ask the guy sitting across the aisle from me if he would switch. He said the same thing I did—that he had work to do and was sorry but couldn’t switch. He also said it was a lot to ask for someone to change to a middle seat for a four hour flight, which I agreed with. She then proceeded to ask every single flight attendant who passed us if there were other seats for them to move to. Finally, after twenty minutes of her pestering people the guy across the aisle said he would switch.

Here’s the deal. This bugged me on so many levels. First of all, the guy across from me was right—it is a lot to ask someone to give up their aisle seat for a long flight. Having to say no made me feel really mean, but everything I said was true. I needed to work, I needed access to my bag, and to be honest I get claustrophobic if I sit somewhere besides the aisle for longer than two hours. Not to mention I had already given up an even better seat so people could sit together. Finally, they were in the exit row, for Pete’s sake! Most people would have been thrilled to be there.

I just really don’t like that I felt so guilty for saying no to something that I don’t think should have been asked in the first place. They didn’t even realize they weren’t sitting together until they got on the plane. If it were so important that they be next to one another they should have checked ahead of time!

Readers, what do you think? Should I have changed seats? Was the lady out of line? What do you do when asked to change seats?


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  1. I will give up a seat for a parent and young child to sit together. For a boyfriend/girlfriend to have to take a middle seat….nope. You and the guy across the aisle were quite right.

  2. Ditto to Up&Away. I’ll give up my seat to a parent and young child (and have done so before), but if it’s that important to you to sit together, pay extra to pick those seats, or consciously book them together. It’s a 4 hr flight, not 10 hours, she should’ve just dealt with it.

  3. I do not see any issue with someone asking if another passenger will switch seats. I do not ask, myself, as a matter of course. I have given up my seat for families and couples in the past, and I feel good when I do that. But there’s no reason I shouldn’t. I put everything I need (computer and books) in a carry-on tote that fits under the seat in front of me, and I am not claustrophobic or unduly uncomfortable on long flights.

    Having said that, I do not think any passenger has an obligation to give up his or her seat for anyone else. If my situation were different (e.g., because of a medical issue or the like), I would not agree to switch. I would hope that I would not be made to feel guilty about that.

  4. I don’t think there is ever any problem with asking (as the saying goes, the worst case scenario is if the person says no.) You said no and the lady moved on to the next stranger. Had she pestered you on and made you feel uncomfortable then that’s another issue.

  5. Parent and child, no problem. I think it’s fine to ask once (and more importantly, politely), but I have only asked someone to switch with me once, and I gave up my aisle seat for his middle seat. That one was a win for him.

  6. I don’t ask people to switch seats because I feel funny. Slightly off topic, out last international flight in business upstairs on a 747 we had a total of 4 seats (2 adults 2 kids (almost teens) and were seperated by two rows. The flight attendants kept asking people to switch seats so we could sit next to each other. I kept telling them it was fine they have flowin multiple times and are well behaved, but they kept asking until someone changed. I felt funny because a couple of people said no and glared at me. I wanted to say, “Seriously it isn’t my idea”

  7. It is even more difficult with airlines monetizing good seats. I was once “asked” by the FA (after I was seated) to give up a seat for which I paid extra so that a mother and child could sit together. I switched, and then ended in the middle seat of the back row of the plane. After paying extra for my original seat, I was particularly unhappy.

  8. I agree that you should stay with the seat that you need for your work or for comfort! I haven’t been asked to change seats in a while, but after right knee replacement, I always book the Port Aisle seat, and I’m not going to give it up. I also prefer to sit closer to the front because it’s quieter. The last time I was asked to switch seats was similar to yours – a mother with twins. They found someone else to move. As for the Exit Row, I’m not sure I could lift 50 lbs., so I’d say NO to that too. Good Luck getting upgraded to First Class! It’s been over a year for that to happen for me! On one trip back from LA, the flight attendant said that most of the passengers in Coach were actually Priority Access. I noticed last week at DFW that the Priority Access Security line was longer than the regular line and I got through faster in the regular line.

  9. This is one of my pet peeves when flying. I check in online, pick my seat online, and pay for the seat I chose. If you’re too lazy to do that, sorry. I’ve switched once, and it was an upgrade for me (window to aisle, several rows up). Even with a parent and child, the parent should know where they are sitting and should have chosen their seats/paid to choose if it really worried them that much. I had a flight attendant try to bully me into switching with a husband so he and his wife could sit together. She wanted me to move from an aisle seat with a ton of extra room (last row, two seats on my side, behind a 3 seat row) to a middle seat in the middle of the plane. For a 10 hour flight.

    If it’s a dire thing or I get an upgrade, sure. Other than that, I just hope it will teach the other person to be more responsible and plan more in the future.

  10. I might anger some people because of my lack of sympathy here…

    You can choose your seat on ahead of time, so unless she booked last minute or was bumped from her seat, there is really no reason to ask someone to switch seats on that particular airline. Just plan ahead and choose two seats together (again, unless there aren’t any seats next to each other because of a last minute booking).

    Perhaps the most frustrating instances occur on Southwest. I always check in exactly 24 hours before my flight (and generally get A boarding group). But sure enough, on every flight, someone does the march of desperation up and down the aisle asking people to change seats. Again, this is something that is completely preventable with just a little bit of planning ahead. A woman who boarded in C group once questioned my chivalry when I refused to give up my 12A seat on the 737-700 (the best seat on that plane)on a 3.5 hour flight.

    Like others have commented, I don’t mind changing seats when a very young child and parent are in separate rows because there weren’t seats together when they booked, but I refuse to accommodate people who simply can’t plan ahead. It’s not a lack of being a gentleman on my part, but rather bad parenting on theirs.

    And if it’s a flight attendant asking you to switch, I don’t think a free drink or two is unreasonable.

  11. If the seat is not as good as or better than my seat I just say “Sorry”. I don’t give any explanation. I plan ahead sorry if you haven’t done that – not my problem. Flying is terrible enough these days in coach. A middle seat is torture.

  12. I also wouldn’t switch to a middle from an aisle so that two adults could sit together, but I did want to respond to the sitting-together comment.

    Many non-frequent travelers still assume that if they booked together they will be seated together, which for a very long time was virtually always true. It’s not nowadays but it’s not the worst assumption in the world – until they behave badly when they’re not together.

  13. No kidding. A few years ago I was flying UA F from LAS-EWR on the overnight flight. My friend sponsored me a few months beforehand and I was able to select 1B. On the int’l configured B757s, 1B has a bigger foot rest area than the other seats which is why I chose this seat far out. However, when I came onboard a person asked me if I would switch my seat with his window seat since his wife was sitting in 1A. I of course said no since I pre-selected 1B a few months ago. However his wife wasn’t happy with my response so she started to complain with the FA. The FA thought I was being a douche as well which is why they were both glaring at me. This made me feel guilty so I told the husband that I will switch seats with him. It pisses me off that she complained about people not paying for First Class seats when she was obviously not paying for the seat as well. If she and her husband paid for the seat in advance, they could’ve pre-selected seats next to each other in advance.

  14. As a parent, in an ideal world every time we book seats they would stay that way and we would know where we are sitting, together with our kids. In the real world it doesn’t always happen that way, and I have had times where I have booked seats with my kids and because of some sort of change they have split us up. Airlines almost always block off seats in the back that they will move families to if you call up enough and ask, but I also would switch with someone so they could sit by their child.

    Switching for two grown adults to sit together? No way.

  15. I wouldn’t switch for the lady and her boyfriend either (but it’s fine for the mother/child). I think she was too much to pester everyone too; if she and her boyfriend really wanted to sit together they could have paid for it.

  16. This happened to me on the return to the US on my trip through hell (a 2 week business trip to China where everything that could go wrong, short of getting shot down, did).

    My return was a DL business class ticket and they had recently introduced the lie flat 1-2-1 arrangement, reverse herringbone. A couple had their infant daughter and had booked the 2 seats in the middle, but the seat map did not show the arrangement as it does now. I had no issue changing my window seat for the opposite aisle so the parents could take turns with the infant (who was quite well behaved the entire flight).

    Now on domestic flights, if I get an upgrade, I first ask if there are any active duty military on the flight (easy to see if they are in uniform). If so, I will allow the soldier (sailor, airman, or marine) to have my seat and I will keep what I booked. It’s only right.

  17. I had taken a negotiations class long back, where we had to collect 10 “NO”s. The idea is – you have to ask some substantial favors from some unknown persons. Most of the time the person will oblige and will not say “NO”. I can say, its very difficult to get 10 NOs.
    You have probably just helped the lady collect one of her 10 NOs.

  18. I cringe anyone makes eye contact with me during the boarding process. I also carefully book my seats and don’t want to switch. I don’t want to be a douche for not switching but hey, I fly my 100k and if I’m organized enough to get my seats. I know too many people that feel that it’s ok to inconvenience others because they didn’t get what they wanted and have no problem asking till they get what they want. All the while making others look bad.

    They only times I’ve asked to switch seats and I can count on less than one hand..Is when my daughter now three has been split up form either my wife or I due to plane swap or something. Otherwise I take what I get or assign what I want at booking.

    You should not feel bad for saying no, you had already done your good deed.

  19. With a family of 5, we often reserve XOX XXX hoping that the middle seat will stay open. However, when that doesn’t happen we offer to switch this passenger to the aisle (as the kids fight over the windows. Book your seats so you are negotiating from a position of strength.

  20. Long ago I fell for this when a little old lady on the aisle asked me to give up my window seat so she could have her husband sit there. Instead of suggesting he ask his seat neighbor, I said OK without asking where he was and so moved to the middle section of a DC-10 from LAX to BOS. I sat with clenched teeth for nearly six hours.

  21. You were far too kind in providing an explanation on why you didn’t want to switch. I’m asked monthly to give up my first row econ, bulkhead, or exit row isle/window seats so that people can sit together — or worse ask to give up the bulkhead so a bassinet can be used there. I look at the person, ask why they didn’t just pay the few dollars to pre-book seats they wanted or get enough status so they can select any econ seat. I then place my headphones back in and smile :).

    FAs can see you status level and should actually be in your favor, if not I’d write in a complain to corporate in-flight so to accurately log their name/desc.

  22. It’s one of those tough questions with no win. Like “When did you stop beating your wife?”

    I think it was a lot for that person to ask you to switch in the first place. You already switched once (I would have mentioned that to them) and wouldn’t feel bad. Now all of that said I would have switched again if one of those people was uniformed military, clergy or if it was child and parent situation.

    You have no reason to feel bad but it’s nice that you care enough to worry about it.

  23. I think you did the right thing. You were asked to give your original seat by the counter agent. I think this is the only way seats should be changed, that is prior to boarding.

    Here is one for you – how about when someone takes your seat without even asking? This happened to my husband. Four of us flew from FLL to DTW on Delta and we sat 3 on one side and he had the aisle seat (so we could hold hands at take off / landing). When we boarded an old woman was already sitting in his aisle seat. He tried to explain to her that she was sitting in his but she insisted that it was her seat. Seeing that she was older (and determined not to move), he sat in the middle seat. I wish he had complained to the FA but after reading some of the posts here, he probably would have gotten a dirty look. Oh the joys of air travel…

  24. I’ve both given up my seat for a parent and child to get together and also been on the other side where we’ve been split up and people have switched for us.

    On most airlines I agree that as parents you should pick your seats ahead of time, but for some reason Air Canada code share flights (United) don’t have the ability to choose your seat until check in. Or at least I didn’t have the ability. And in that case we (and everyone else on our flight it seemed) were split up.

  25. I have no problem asking someone to take my “better” seat in exchange for their “worse” seat. For example, my wife and I always book an aisle seat and a window seat when we book in coach with the hopes that the middle will remain unoccupied. If it ends up filled the person in the middle is always pleasantly surprised that their middle seat is now a window seat (we usually ask if they’d prefer the window to the middle; on one occasion the response was “actually, I’d prefer the aisle” (which we gave them)).

    I have also asked to switch for a seat that is identical for all intents and purposes. Example: my wife and I both got upgraded and we were in the same row but she was in a window seat and I was in the aisle seat on the other side of the aisle. I had no qualms about asking the guy next to my wife if he was willing to trade an aisle seat for an aisle seat in the same row (he was of course).

  26. I almost forgot that I was recently asked to change seats. This was on upgraded first class from Honolulu to Oakland on Alaska Airlines.

    It was the counter agent who asked me shortly before boarding call to change seats within first class so a family could sit together in first class. I told her I hated sitting in bulkhead but I’d do it for miles. I got 2,500 miles for the bargain, so it was a win for me.

    When the airline or fellow passengers ask you for a favor, counter with your own incentive request, and both of you may win.

  27. This happened just last week. I was asked to move to accomodate a mom and daughter, in front of them, to a middle seat. I did it, and asked, in return, that the agent ensure my boss, flying standby, get on the flight. It worked! I would not switch from an aisle to a middle to accomodate a couple. It’s unfair to ask someone to make their own experience worse to benefit an independent adult. So , no, you were not “that person.” The asker was.

  28. When I’m in coach, I will switch to accommodate a child, an elderly person, or a disabled person. However, if the switch involves moving me to a middle seat, I ask for FA assistance so we can find me an equivalent seat to what I have. I’m not sitting in a middle seat on a long flight.

    When I’m up front, I’ll usually switch without question.

  29. I switched once with a lady who was separated from her hubby, but it worked out well because I got a window seat, which I prefer over aisle seat. It was an air Canada flight. For some reason we couldn’t check in beforehand, so hubby was on the other side of the plane three aisles back, because there weren’t many seat choices left. I don’t sweat it…6-7 hr flight from London to Halifax …whatever…I can entertain myself for that long. But it was interesting when they brought the meals around and the man who switched seats had ordered a special meal…took me a few seconds to remember I had changed seats…lol. But they were nice people travelling I think from India to Toronto and I chatted with them in the line when we arrived home to Halifax. I guess I figure unless it’s parents and a child, grown adults can sit apart for hours..unless there was an anxiety issue with flying. Note…had my husband and I had adjoining seats, I wouldn’t switch…but we were seated apart anyways.

  30. I don’t have status on any airline. So I normally pay for economy plus seats. I normally travel with my 88 year old mother. I get aisle seats accross from each other. If someone wanted me to switch seats….it would be sorry.

  31. I will not switch seats for anyone, especially if I was switching to a worse off seat. And especially not when I have paid extra for that seat. Move both of them up to business or move me, or move me to a similar seat, why should I be expected to suffer for someone else. I live my life with very simple rules, I do not intrude into yours.. you do not intrude into mine….asking me for something when I do not know you is intrusion….

  32. I recently was in line to board a cross-country flight and all of a sudden my seat went from 12F on Economy Plus (United) to something in the 30’s and a middle seat!! I got out of line and went to the gate agent who said I was switched so a mother and child could sit together. I was mad- United didn’t ask they just did. I explained to the gate agent that I was Gold status and she can’t move me to economy. She kept telling me it was for a mother and child…I told her to switch someone else in economy!!! The end result was I was put back into my original seat. So… I guess I’m just a big meanie and won’t move for a mother and child. Why United would move people like this I don’t get -but ultimately I saw the mother and child sitting together in Economy.

  33. I absolutely disagree with you. Quite often, my seats get changed and my partner is separated from me on flights, last time was a month ago and they were Business Class seats…
    He’s scared of flying, so if we are not together, he’ll walk off the plane.
    To me, people travelling together is the most important thing and when I’m alone, I would change seats without hesitation, to any seat.

  34. One time I was asked to switched seat so that a family could sit together. The gate agent didn’t tell me the new seat was at the last row. I was miserable on that seat for 10 hrs to Russia. The seat was completely straight up and I wasn’t able to sleep at all. Since then I will NEVER switch unless you want to move me to first class. I think it is not being mean. We need to take care ourselves first before we can take care others. We all learn our lessons.

  35. Parent / child yes. Couple, not for a downgrade. I think your mistake was giving an explanation. Then the asker has ammo to challenge it. Just say “no” or “sorry” with an apologetic look. Manipulators love to challenge explanations. So don’t give them. Just say no and if asked why say “I don’t want to.”

  36. @Lady Light: One way to shut this down would be to ask if they would be willing to reimburse you for the fare difference. That ought to stop them cold.

  37. The people requesting you to switch seats may not be complete slackers on ticket purchase — flights get canceled, connections missed, etc, that can force this situation. Still, my rule is that I will only switch if my seat position improves. I think would be a very effective rule of thumb if everyone employed it.

  38. Get over it – if you can’t switch, you can’t switch. Just because you can’t say no, you don’t even want to be asked the question? Give me a break. It may be an uncomfortable position but that’s life. Sometimes it isn’t fair.

  39. No guilt necessary and I don’t switch for middle seat. Gate agents will do everything possible to put families together and assist diabled or the elderly. As long as people are respectful, they can ask all they want. On a semi-related note, noticed people are now pointing when they want you to move instead of being polite with an excuse me. Anyone seeing that now? My Mom taught me that pointing is rude. any thoughts on that?

  40. The best answer is – absolutely Not. With no excuse necessary. The audacity of some people. Be firm and have no regrets.

  41. The problem is that some people, like this woman, are narcissists. So it is all about their needs and you don’t matter. In fact, I would guess she was not really happy with the new seat either.

  42. Hi,
    You are correct. It s only a short flight and it s not like it is parent/child .

  43. You did the right thing. Your were kind to allow the first switch but for grown ups not being able to sit together, NO! Today there are so many ways to make sure your demands are met, but to ask others to change from an aisle to a middle, that was plain rude. I understand her concern but you don’t ask that no matter what. It’s like here is a banana peel for a diamond! You did right and feel no remorse for it at all.

  44. I fly multiple times per month and have seen it all. As pertains to this event, you acted perfectly IMO. A young lady in her early 20s wearing a thick neck brace plaintively asked me to change my exit row aisle with her back of the bus seat so she could sit next to her oh-so-supportive boyfriend nodding next to her. Some compassion but mostly peer pressure made me agree. After some additionally shuffling around in back I ended next to a middle-aged couple who told me during the flight, I kid you not, that their daughter faked a neck injury to gain sympathy for the seat change, at the parents’ suggestion using the mom’s old neck brace. I mentioned this to the flight attendant and she said yup, as soon as she sat down the neck brace was came off. Why? Because disabled passengers cannot sit in exit rows, which I should have known, of course, and refused changing seats due to, “sorry, FAA regulations.” Who’s the dummy in that scenario? I guess it was me. If one wants to prove the validity of Jeremiah 17:9 one only need travel by air.

  45. Have to admit, I still have my nose out of joint (since 2007) because of an incident that happened to me on Emirates before a 14hr flight. Hubby and I (despite being on the same booking) were separated by an aisle and two rows. We tried and tried to get the seating changed before boarding (the checkin guy in Birmingham told us to see the gate agents in Dubai – even though he’d just issued the bloody boarding passes – and the customer service desk in Dubai was on the other side of security! and the gate agents there told us to deal with it on the plane). We changed seats with an elderly guy who was happy to swap his middle seat for an aisle, so all was sweet. BUT the as we were seated there was a woman who was trying to get herself switched because she and her THREE YEAR OLD DAUGHTER were 17 rows apart! 17 rows! And what burns my chaps the most is that if I was a Muslim woman travelling with her husband, they would never have allowed us to be separated, but because we are Westerners it clearly did not matter. I swore I’d never fly Emirates again.

  46. It seems to me that we should be directing our anger to where it really belongs…on the airline policy that splits up families and couples in the first place. It’s extortion on the part of the airlines. Yes, people should be able to pay extra to guarantee them a certain specific seat, or to sit in an upgraded area, but its not right to expect families , or even couples who book together, to pay extra for guaranteed seats next to each other.

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