When traveling with a friend or loved one, do you book the aisle and window seat and hope that the middle seat remains empty? It is a strategy I have used for years, to varying degrees of success, but apparently, one that is quite controversial.
Do You Book An Aisle And Window Seat In Hopes The Middle Seat Stays Empty?
Hannah Sampson of The Washington Post explores the issue, gathering data points from those who are in favor and those who are against the practice. While planes almost always wind up going out full, you can maximize your chance for an open seat by booking an aisle and window seat toward the back of the plane. Even with a high load factor, it is those middle seats in the rear that tend to fill up last.
The last time I tried this was on an 11-hour SWISS flight from San Francisco to Zurich. It did not work.
There is a right way and wrong way to do this. I would never do this if I was not willing to actually take a middle seat if the plane filled up. The worst possible display of rudeness is when a couple keep the aisle and window and talk back and forth over the passenger seated between them.
Typically hate when people do this. The few times I’ve been the middle person, the couple stayed in their respective seats but talked, argued, and passed things over me. If you’re going to stay in the seats you chose, you need to pretend like you don’t know each other.
— TWO GUYS ON A PLANE (@twoguysonaplane) December 17, 2022
There are some risks to doing so. Chiefly, you may (rarely) find that your seatmate in the middle seat does not want to switch:
losing my mind, just offered the aisle seat to the guy sitting between me and my gf on a flight, and he said he’d rather stay in the middle seat between us
— Zack Bornstein (@ZackBornstein) December 8, 2022
I have no idea why anyone would want to be between a couple, even if they are quiet, but you do run that risk. Perhaps it was meant to punish the couple for the presumptivness of assuming that a person would trade a middle seat for an aisle or window seat, but come on…that’s trading up, not trading down. This can hardly be compared to the sweat swapping antics we read about where a traveler wants to trade a less desirable seat for a more desirable seat.
Nevertheless, it is a risk I am willing to take when I travel in economy class. In my case above, the young lady with the middle seat was very happy to take the aisle. Ecstatic, actually.
Even Sara Nelson, the “world’s most powerful flight attendant” employee this “trick” in an attempt to score a whole row:
We’re a “couple” of flying fanatics who do this every time. Better chance of getting the row to ourselves. We’re both window (DC side) flyers though, so if someone is booked in the middle they get the aisle (and I typically take the middle because that’s the kind of “boss” I am). pic.twitter.com/p6CpmleCTY
— Sara Nelson (@FlyingWithSara) December 17, 2022
Finally, note that some airlines (like United Airlines) are blocking passengers from doing this. If you are traveling with someone and assign a window and aisle, keep an eye on your reservation because United often (but not always) will move you to two seats next to each other. The better option with United is to book two aisles. That way you can both easily get up and also chat across the aisle.
I will continue to book a window and aisle combo in hopes that the middle stays open. While that is less likely these days, it is a risk worth taking. Still, it is not wise to demand that your middle seat seatmate swap with you. As always, ask nicely and do not presume.
Do it all the time. If someone comes for the middle seat, we usually offer up the aisle, with the understanding we may want to get up later to use the bathroom.
Similar on Southwest – we take the aisle and window, but we give up the aisle and take the middle (and keep the window) – most of our Southwest flights are short time frames so it’s not that bad…..
Never had an issue –
The last-minute non-rev stand-bys will fill middle E+/C+/MCE seats before the regular middles. People often forget to glance the length of the stand-by list.
It’s fine if you’re on a flight that has a reasonable chance of not filling, but don’t be delusional. Unless the flight is at a truly undesirable time, it will fill and your only chance of an empty middle is if someone misses their connection.
An empty seat on a plane these days? The expectation of that ranks up there with “if I dress nice I might get an upgrade.”
I have flown on a few full flights recently, but you can usually get empty seats on short haul if you aren’t flying at a time that’s convenient for those connecting to/from major departure/arrival banks at the hub. I managed to avoid flying in December, but off the top of my head I can remember the following in Oct/Nov where people had rows to themselves. MUC-AMS (LH CRJ), JNB-MPM (LM on a turboprop, maybe Q400?) and CDG-BHX (AF A319).
I’ve done it a few times, but only on international carriers (that doesn’t have a US leg), not sure why but anecdotally they don’t seem to fill up as much.
I wouldn’t dare do this on a domestic carrier; can’t remember a flight that wasn’t packed to the gills.
Two aisles for us.
Been there, done that multiple times.
I’m with Stuart on this one. I never bother trying to do this. I do, however, strategically place my family so that we remain together if one of us (usually me) gets upgraded (with my wife moving up front and me taking her place).
Wife and I always book two aisle seats opposite each other.
We used to use the middle-seat trick. I don’t understand why it’s considered controversial. If someone showed up for the middle seat, then we’d offer them the aisle. If they wanted to sit in between us, that was fine too. Unfortunately, we don’t have the opportunity to use it any longer because, on the fares we buy, the airlines now charge extra to select seats – a luxury that we choose to forego.
What about booking two isle seats opposite each other.
Whenever I flew with my wife, I used to reserve an aisle and a window. If someone came to sit in the middle, we offer them one of our seats.
But the last time we flew, with Air France/KLM last november, the system no longer allows us to do that. We have to reserve two seats together or, if separately, not in the same row.
TUI (definitely UK, perhaps others) has blocked the ‘aisle and window’ trick for quite some time now.
This is something I’m pretty much forced to do when flying Ethiopian with my wife (both of us are *G) since ET puts an adjacent soft seat block automatically next to *G pax. That means once one of us selects an aisle seat, the middle seat cannot be assigned to anyone else. So we have no choice but to pick window-aisle with the blocked middle seat between us. It works out for us at least half the time too because the soft block can only be overridden by a supervisor under airport control and they tend not to do that unless the aircraft is really filling up.
When I fly standby I look for these people so that I can grab the window. I hate the aisle so I will stay in the middle if you offer me your aisle.
Once saw a guy get a broken nose for playing this game when someone from another country boarded. Guy from foreign country was intent on sitting in the middle. Broke the guy’s nose cleanly when he figured out the couple was playing games. I kind of chuckled while watching it all play out in front of me.
I don’t do this pers0nally, but not sure why it would be controversial. I would imagine the vast majority of the time, the person assigned the middle would be more than happy to trade for an aisle or window.
Never did it myself, just because it seems wrong to be deceptive – remember the initial idea is not to trade seats, it’s to try and get three across with two people. To those thinking it would be a win-win, and the third wheel booking the middle would be happy to get the aisle/window, remember that except for your actions, that traveler would have picked the free aisle/window seat in the first place.
Not today when every airline charges to pre select a window or aisle seat pretty much in the whole plane. So it’s really a win-win.
I had something like that happen. I was requested to change my window seat with a woman so she and her mother could have a middle seat free while I was squeezed in a middle seat further back. A hard pass on that. The answer was no. I’m not into being punked. She came up and sat next to her mother in the middle seat. Needless to say, there was no conversation between us.
You assume the risk by booking both the aisle and window…so don’t complain if someone takes the middle.
To up the ante, I pick the exit row aisle seat. I find many are reluctant to pay the premium for the exit row and end up in the middle seat.
Air Canada does the same! Recently assigned an aisle and a window, checked again arrangements during check in and saw we were moved to an aisle and a window
I could see doing in on Southwest maybe, but in general attempting to game the system is kinda a douche move. Being open and transparant and conducting yourself and your personal business in good faith is a better rule, IMHO. But where are the usual elitest “you should just pay for first class” comments I’d expect here!? 🙂
I keep the middle seat just to be passive-aggressive and I think this is a dick move on the author’s part. I also tend to accidentally spill drinks on both of them. Oops, sorry. You’re next, Mat. It’s not a good world to be messing with people in hopes of living a privileged life. Flying is tough enough and folks are tense.
Poor miserable Mark. Try this on me and I can promise you that you will regret it. Viele Grüße!
For the few of you stating this is “gaming the system.” What about the airlines overbooking flights?!
The idea that this is “gaming the system” is just so foolish. When you offer to trade someone a middle seat for an aisle or window, you are offering an upgrade, not a downgrade. That’s the opposite of gaming the system…
On a recent October flight between SAT and EWR, it worked. On the return, it did not.
All of these so-called strategies same legitimate to me. If two people want to try to take their chance on the middle seat’s being empty, let them. If somebody takes that middle seat and is reluctant to move, that’s their tough luck. Or maybe it takes some offer on their part of $50 or $100 to get him to move. That would be sweet. Talking over somebody is impolite, but air travel has lost so much of its luster to be concerned about that. If I were in the middle seat and people were talking over me, I might take out a notebook or phone and start recording the conversation, and if they asked what I was doing, I would say that of course I know their names and was planning on publishing everything in a blog. That might get them to shut up pretty quickly.
And, although I think the airlines turn off people at a rate that may not justify the profitability of their maneuvers, these days there are all sorts of choices that one makes about whether or not to pay in advance for things like seat selection. If you pay for a particular seat, you have every right to stand your ground and refuse to give up that seat to some other passenger who would like the convenience of sitting next to someone, sitting at an aisle etc. There’s a very simple test to apply. If their necessity is sufficiently compelling to mandate that you give up a seat that you purchased specifically or that you were lucky enough to snag in the draw, then their necessity is sufficiently compelling for the airline to accommodate them some other way, to upgrade you to the front of the plane in order to accommodate them in your seat or offer you whatever amount of compensation it takes for you to agree to accommodate the other person. Be aware, however, that the crews retain a great deal of authority to manage what goes on inside that long aluminum tube, so you have to be careful not to make too much of a jerk of yourself and to know when to accept what is being offered instead of folding your hands and saying no, or else they will put you off the plane or move you against your will to wherever they want to, and good luck getting any compensation if that happens.
My wife and I do this all the time but I didn’t realize it was a “game”. She likes the window and I prefer the aisle; neither one of us likes the middle (imagine that). On the rare occasion someone figures out we’re together they always offer to switch and we decline. When I travel with my dad we get aisle seats across from each other.
Interesting that you refuse to switch. Do you converse with each other during the flight?
I do this all the time. Sometimes we get an open middle seat, sometimes not. If the middle is occupied, we play it by ear. Maybe we switch, maybe we don’t. If the other passenger stays in the middle, we are mindful of not passing things over them, or talking over them unnecessarily.
To the people who do not understand why someone would not give up their seat, there are several good reasons. First, with covid, I wipe down my seating area. Tray table, seat belt, armrest. After doing this…I am settled in for the flight. Another reason is airlines that are cashless onboard. You buy food and drink with a credit card in your profile that is tied to your assigned seat. Maybe they don’t want to pay for the wrong sandwich and drink. Then there are those who just don’t want to switch. Maybe they have a challenge flying, maybe they want their remains accounted for properly in the unlikely event of a fatal crash. Whatever it is…. you really have no right making someone move if they don’t wish to.