My dad forwarded a NY Times article to me last night, and it reminded me of so many trips I’ve taken with Megan. What do you do when you and your companion are seated separately on an airplane? I agree with everything Joe Sharkey says. But he never did get around to making a good suggestion. Perhaps part of my confusion is that the article seems geared toward travelers flying in coach even though it’s published in the Business section and he interviews someone who pays for first class. Then again, maybe the point of the article is to sympathize with business travelers and tell them it’s okay to say “no” when they’re asked to move seats.
Mr. Sharkey starts be recounting a story in which he paid the extra $20 to select an aisle seat. Get that? He paid extra for that exact seat. But then another man wanted him to move to the back so that his wife could take that premium seat.
I told the man that I preferred sitting where I was, but from his huffy reaction you would have thought that I had failed to yield a seat on a bus to a nine-months pregnant woman. “We like to sit together,” he muttered darkly as he heaved his considerable bulk into the middle seat for the three-hour flight. I resisted the urge to assure him that he and his wife would still arrive in Houston at the same time.
The passenger’s behavior is just intolerable, and it makes me root for Mr. Sharkey for standing up for himself. It’s one thing to ask kindly if another passenger would mind. If he agrees, you say thank you, offer to buy him a drink, and so on. If he says no, you should agree that it’s well within his right and either find another solution or accept your fate. Making a stink like this passenger did is childish.
Why You Aren’t Entitled to Someone Else’s Seat
A lot of the time, these requests are made by infrequent travelers who don’t know to select their seats in advance to ensure they sit together. Other times, the airline charges a fee for seat assignments, or just charges a fee for aisle and window seats (making it almost impossible to get two adjacent seats).
Welcome to the world of ancillary fee revenue, the same thing that led to buy-on-board food and fees for checked baggage. It’s the price you pay for getting a cheaper fare up front, so I don’t want to hear any whining from people who complain that they can’t afford it. Airfare has remained remarkably constant over the last several decades. You can fly from the West to East Coast for about $300. It costs the same now when I’m 27 as it did when I was 7. Except $300 bought a lot more back then if you chose to spend it on something else. These added fees are part of the cost of travel, just like parking at the airport, so if you insist on selecting seats together you should expect to pay them.
How to Reduce Fees and Sit Together
Obviously you should start by selecting seats when you book your ticket. Hopefully it’s free, but there are many ways to avoid some of these fees. Even low-level frequent flyers can get priority boarding, shorter lines, free checked baggage, and preferred seating. Usually this starts out around 25,000 miles a year, and while that sounds like a lot, it isn’t really if you can focus on a single airline or alliance or use a few tricks. Flying Seattle to Newark is 4,800 miles roundtrip. Connect in Houston (usually cheaper), and it’s 6,550 miles. Do that four times in a year to fly home from college and visit the family and you’ve reached the Silver tier on most airlines. Most airline credit cards will also offer the equivalent of low-level status without the extra flying for an annual fee of about $50-75 a year.
If you fly Star Alliance carriers like United Airlines and US Airways, there’s a trick! Sign up with Aegean Airlines and credit your miles there instead. 4,000 miles is all you need for Star Silver status, which will get you priority boarding and one checked bag. 20,000 miles will get you Star Gold status, for higher priority, faster check-in, and additional checked bags (click on “Baggage service charge exceptions”). There’s still no access to preferred seating in United’s Economy Plus, but United doesn’t charge for seat assignments in standard economy.
What If You Still Need to Ask?
Well, if you’ve done what you can and still have to ask to change seats, be polite and remember, it belongs to another passenger. He or she may have paid extra to sit there, whether it’s a preferred seat in economy or a first class seat up front (some people do pay for those). Or perhaps they fly a lot and have earned the seat for free through an elite benefit. If you start to feel jealous, just remember that they may be flying every other week. If you hate flying and only do it twice a year, how awful would it be for that person if he didn’t get a free perk now and then?
Lose the sense of entitlement, and don’t involve a flight attendant. You are asking a favor of this person. It’s like getting to the movie theater late, finding that all the good seats are taken, and then demanding someone move ten rows forward and crane his neck back for the next two hours. Hopefully the change will be minor, but sometimes you really are proposing a bad substitute for the seat you want him to give up.
- Find out who in your group has the best seat and see if it’s possible to offer the good seat to the passenger you want to switch with. Don’t expect to get an aisle seat in row 10 in exchange for a middle seat in row 20.
- Don’t sit down in the seat you want. Go to your assigned seat and wait for the person to show up. Or board late after he or she is already there. But it’s rude to camp out in a seat that isn’t yours because now you’ve put him in the position of asking for his own seat.
- Try to be prompt about making the request. It is good to ask while the person is just settling in and before he or she has put all their stuff away and their bag overhead. Yes, this is why it can seem like a good idea to camp out in the seat, but I still think it’s rude. So try to just look around and watch for the person to arrive.
- Be polite when you make your request. Acknowledge that they have no obligation to move. If they agree, be grateful. Maybe offer to buy a drink (but you could have just paid to get an assigned seat in the first place). If they refuse, accept defeat. You may not have many other options, but you can’t always win.
As for the person being asked, try to be polite in return. Megan has had one or two run-ins where the person she asked to give up his seat was very rude and snapped back at her (and Megan is hardly ever rude …that’s my department). Yes, we get it, it’s your seat. A simple “I’m sorry, but I like this seat” will suffice.
Finally, what do you do in first class? There are a lot fewer seats to choose from, and at least there are no middle seats to worry about. But it’s a problem we run into a lot if we are upgraded separately. All the above rules still apply, but now you have to accept that, even if some people are upgraded, others may be paying a lot more than you for a real first class fare.
My preferred approach is to use United’s upgrade standby list. It lists the assigned seat of everyone who has been upgraded, usually automatically by a computer. That person may not realize he has a window seat in the bulkhead row until he shows up on the plane, so pick the aisle seat next to him and put your companion in a window or aisle seat with more legroom. That’s probably a trade he’ll be willing to accept. Hopefully you’ll all end up happy.