The New York Times recently featured a story titled: ‘I Refused to Switch Seats on a Plane. Twice. Was I Wrong?’ The reader submitting the question wrote: “I am an organized person. When I travel, I book my flights well in advance. This usually lets me claim my preferred seat: on the aisle in the bulkhead row. I have long legs, and those seats tend to provide more legroom — not that I have to justify myself. This brings me to my problem: The last two times I’ve flown, a steward asked me to change seats to accommodate a parent flying alone with small children. My moving would allow them to sit together. But I didn’t want to move! (They could have booked in advance, too.) So, I politely refused. Several passengers made nasty comments. Was I wrong to hold my ground?”

The New York Times expert replied with: “Generally, you are entitled to sit in the seat that you paid for — the one that is printed on your boarding pass. (Let’s put aside rules about emergency exit rows and other special circumstances.) You weren’t “wrong” to politely refuse a request to move. Any number of passengers could have done so to accommodate those families. I wouldn’t be doing my job, though, if I didn’t encourage you to empathize with the parents. Flying with young children is challenging; doing so while sitting in separate rows, or under unexpected circumstances (a distant family member falling ill, for instance), is far more difficult. Now, none of this obliges you to change seats. Just let it be part of your calculation.”

RELATED: Worst Seatmate Ever: Frequent Flyers Reveal Their Worst Experiences

I totally understand both sides but as someone who is extremely organized and who spends hours planning trips and setting seat alerts so that my family and I get the seats we’re most comfortable in, it bothers me when I hear stories like this.

Obviously, there are a lot of variables involved. Did the parents book a trip at the last minute for an emergency or did they book far in advance and didn’t spend the time to get seats together? I’ve been on both sides of this multiple times.

There have been times when our flight was cancelled or missed a connection and there weren’t seats together. If it was just me and my wife traveling, we would politely ask if one of our seatmates would be kind enough to switch but if they didn’t, we certainly wouldn’t press them. We would just suck it up and sit apart.

But most of the time, one of our seatmates would switch and that’s because I made sure we had something to offer. No one in their right mind would go from a window or an aisle seat to a middle seat. So that’s why, if I couldn’t get seats together, I would at least assign us an aisle and a window so we had some leverage and a better chance of enticing someone to move.

I would also get on the plane early and ask the passenger before they got settled in. Once someone puts their bag in the overhead space, wipes down their seat and puts their stuff in the seatback pocket (not that you want to do the latter since it’s filled with germs), it’s more of a hassle for them to switch.

RELATED: The 7 Dirtiest Things on an Airplane, According to a Flight Attendant

I also try to keep our rows close together so people don’t have to move their bag in the overhead if I don’t reach them in time.  The most coveted coach seats are the exit row and bulkhead so you can’t ask someone to switch rows from one that has extra space to one that doesn’t.

RELATED: How to Get the Exit Row For Free

When it comes to small children, the rules do get thrown out because you can’t expect little kids to sit alone. I remember once, I was flying from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, and I had an aisle seat. This was decades ago and I can’t remember why I wasn’t in an exit row but a mother sat next to me in the middle and her little boy sat across the aisle in the other middle seat. He was crying, “I want to sit next to you, Mom!” so before she even asked, I volunteered to switch.

Well, wouldn’t you know it … for my good deed, a few minutes later, a Hawaiian Tropics model who was terrified of flying, sat in the seat next to me. Yes, I was single back then and when she asked if she could hold my hand if there was turbulence, I couldn’t reply fast enough with a resounding ‘yes!’ But, you gotta be careful what you wish for. The turbulence was wicked on descent and she not only held my hand but she dug her nails into my arm. The worst part was that her boyfriend, who could have doubled for The Rock, was waiting for her at the gate when we arrived.

But I digress. If you want to avoid having to cave to peer pressure or looking like the bad guy by not switching seats to accommodate families, then book a seat in the  exit row since kids under 15 can’t sit there. If you are someone trying to get a fellow passenger to switch seats, then make sure you have something to bargain with and if you don’t, cash helps.

What’s your take on switching seats on a plane? Drop a comment below!

UPDATED: Here’s some good insight from a reader, which will make you think twice about giving anyone attitude for saying no.
“One other thought on switching.  When I was an armed federal officer on the flight (plain clothes), I could not switch seats.  The pilot and flight crew needed to know where I was in the event of an emergency.  Now I couldn’t disclose that at the time of the request and had to decline.  Then came the looks.  Now a flight attendant wouldn’t ask that because they know the reason.  It was usually an individual request.  So I’ll reemphasize not to get made at the person who refuses.  There may be another reason.”

Advertisement

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

recommended-cart-post-image
APPLY NOW
  • Earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $750 when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.
  • Enjoy benefits such as a $50 annual Ultimate Rewards Hotel Credit, 5x on travel purchased through Chase Ultimate Rewards®, 3x on dining and 2x on all other travel purchases, plus more.
  • Get 25% more value when you redeem for airfare, hotels, car rentals and cruises through Chase Ultimate Rewards®. For example, 60,000 points are worth $750 toward travel.
  • With Pay Yourself Back℠, your points are worth 25% more during the current offer when you redeem them for statement credits against existing purchases in select, rotating categories
  • Count on Trip Cancellation/Interruption Insurance, Auto Rental Collision Damage Waiver, Lost Luggage Insurance and more.
  • Get complimentary access to DashPass which unlocks $0 delivery fees and lower service fees for a minimum of one year when you activate by December 31, 2024.

The comments on this page are not provided, reviewed, or otherwise approved by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

Editorial Note: The editorial content on this page is not provided by any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

22 Comments On "Are You Obligated to Switch Seats on a Plane?"
  1. Cindy|

    That’s a hard no. I pick my seats carefully because of my joint condition. I need to get up and move around so I always pick an aisle seat. I am sorry but I am just as important as you are.

  2. Ken|

    I just avoid the bulkhead…. I’m tall as well but sitting next to screaming children isn’t worth it.. Just get an aisle and suck it up if exits and other opportunities don’t exist….

  3. Catherine|

    I happily switched when they offered to move me to first class!

  4. Benita|

    With Southwest I always pay extra to be sure to get an aisle seat near the front of the airplane. A few years ago the passenger next to me was overweight and had booked two seats — so I’m happy with the extra elbow room. Just before takeoff the flight attendant told me I had to switch seats. Another overweight passenger had booked two seats BUT when he got on the plane, only middle seats were left. She told me I HAD to move to a middle seat near the back of the plane. I certainly wasn’t happy with that situation, particularly because I had paid extra for my original seat. But with Southwest, there are no seat assignments

  5. Pammie|

    I would gladly switch if the airlines priced all seats the same like they used to but am not giving up a AA PREFERRED MAIN CABIN SEAT that I either paid extra for or got thru my loyalty to AA. Sorry

  6. Max|

    I had a situation a few years ago when the plane was full except for the middle seat next to me and the seat directly behind it and we were all waiting for the doors to close. I had settled into my aisle seat. At the last second, two young women came on board and were frustrated that they had middle seats and not together, so the one next to me said “Why don’t you go back there and take her seat so she and I can sit together?” as if it was expected that I would just jump up and do that. I politely said no, that I was comfortable where I was, but she became disrespectful and wouldn’t let up even after the plane had taken off and the pilot had turned off the seatbelt sign. At the time, I was learning Portuguese from cd’s and decided to spend the rest of the flight with my ear buds and she had to listen to me speak in Portuguese responding to the Portuguese lessons and I made sure she could hear every word all the way across the United States.

  7. Rose|

    I can’t believe 2 adults HAVE to sit together on a plane flight. If they do, book early and pick your seats like I do. I don’t give up my seats. So far so good. My husband and I sit aisles with me in front of him as I don’t recline my seat but one notch. Works for us.

  8. Anonymous|

    In Delta’s first class to NYC I encountered a young woman who, because she met an ‘old boyfriend’ according to her in the line waiting to get into the plane, wanted to sit next to him, also in first class. Probably because I was by myself at the window she asked the steward if I would move so she and her BF could sit together. Would I move to the bulkhead aisle with a screaming baby next to me. No, not happening. Well the young woman thru a fit, called me a bitch, etc. unfortunately for her loud enough so everybody in first class could hear her. She got in my face and continued her tirade at lower volume but I took then took the opportunity to say loud enough everyone could her me included 3 stewards standing frozen waiting to jump…”don’t threaten me again or I will scream and you won’t be sitting anywhere other than the police room at the airport”…I got almost a 100% standing ovation from all within earshot. She shut up, was taken into the kitchen area and probably got a warning. I was a little shook up but my response made my day…till she accosted me again when getting my luggage so I notified the police in the area at LaGuardia and they walked her to their office. FYI – the old boyfriend was so embarrassed by her he stayed in his seat and looked sheepish the whole trip…Hold your ground!

  9. Anonymous|

    Way to go! LOL

  10. Tim|

    For a family with a small child, I would seriously consider moving as a courtesy, however since the airlines are all charging you in some way if you want a good seat, they should compensate you for that. But for others, no. I recently had an AA flight from Atlanta to LA, and paid for a preferred seat on the aisle as I usually do. The window seat was occupied, but the center seat was open. We were just about to close the door, when an overweight man boarded and headed for the center seat next to me. He asked if I would sit in the middle so he could have the aisle since he was anxious about flying. I politely declined. Unfortunately it was an uncomfortable flight since he could barely fit in his seat. I had to lean into the aisle the entire flight. The thing that really bothered me, was that a crew member was dead heading and was seated in an empty middle seat in the exit row. They should have had the crew member move out of that premium seat and let either me or this guy sit there. I didn’t think fast enough to make that request. I think the flight crews should be more proactive about that when they see an uncomfortable seating arrangement, when they have crew on travelling on board. Sorry, but crew getting premium seats should be the exception.

  11. susan|

    I will only change from one aisle to another aisle in Economy Plus. I will never take a window seat in an exchange unless it’s in first class. I’ve changed with families but it was always to another aisle – and it kept me from sitting next to some small children!

  12. RC|

    I empathize with people traveling together who wish to sit together, including families, but every legacy carrier has a flexible seating chart that you can monitor from booking time literally until almost boarding time.

    I’m a bit taller and try to plan out my travel so that I do have an aisle seat also as I have a bad knee. When folks have asked me to move, I am very polite but explain that I paid for my seat in advance so that I could have extra leg room or movement.

    In most cases folks are pretty understanding. Even on Southwest, this has happened when I had early boarding – because I paid extra or checked in literally at 24 hours before – and the C boarding category folks get pushy demanding that I move 15 rows to the back of the plane kind of thing. When I’ve seen elderly couples board late and be likely to be separated, I’ve offered without being asked.

    But the one thing that’s really upsetting is the sense of entitlement by the folks who have literally demanded or told me that I needed to move to accommodate them with me as a single traveler. Especially lately, I noticed the trend are folks who have basic economy tickets and board last on legacy carriers – and seem to be annoyed that they have a bunch of middle seats assigned. Basic economy states exactly that issue if you want to save a few bucks and not pay for the seats. So I don’t have any sympathy.

    Yes, it’s a tough situation with all the traveling Dynamics but I think you’re within your rights to want to keep the seat that you have unless there’s not an upgrade or a reasonable alternative or similar seat available. Especially if a longer flight.

  13. CuJo|

    Usually I would switch, it depends on the situation. It’s best to put others before yourself, despite what some others may think.

  14. Tom Anderson|

    I, too, book my flights way in advance and always get to the airport early. Unless there’s a very good reason I will not switch… and even then only to an aisle seat.

  15. Ray Gauthier|

    I was also asked by a mother to switch seats. I agreed to do so, but her seat was next to the toilet. Unfortunately, I had to endure the smells for the rest of the trip.

  16. Michael A Ristow|

    I live on the Big Island of Hawaii and when I travel on inter-island hopper flights, I
    purposely book a window seat on the pertinent side both directions of the plane to view the islands and the coastline. I really enjoy the views. For me it’s like watching the sunset, they don’t get old.

    But being male and flying alone, it seems that the likelihood of being picked by a flight attendant to
    give up one’s seat so a family may sit next to each other on a 30-minute flight is VERY high. It’s
    happened far too many times for it to be a coincidence. If it’s not me it’s another male flying alone
    being asked to move and I find myself chuckling under my breath that that guy got it and I didn’t get picked.

    | doubt the flight attendants even think about this what I call “flight attendant gender targeting”. l’ve resigned myself to expect it for its’ predictability, and I do feel a little miffed when I’m picked again because of my advanced planning, but I just move. After all it’s a short flight.

    After reading these posts, maybe next time I won’t move:)

  17. S. Kincaid|

    I am an older woman who generally travels solo. I book my travel well in advance and select my seat at the same time. I do not give up my assigned seat. I am not your sweet old gray haired grandmother, and I don’t care how cute your kids are, I’m not moving. Plan ahead or drive.

  18. G Mayes|

    I travel alone quite frequently, plan ahead and select my seat for a reason and hold my ground.
    NOW, if the airlines want to “offer” an upgrade OR an incentive to accommodate someone who is whining to the flight attendants, I MAY consider such an offer, but more than likely not.
    Like S. Kincaid, I am an older woman as well. And like her, I am NOT your sweet old aunt or grandmother. I have no children, hence no grandchildren. And I, as well, really don’t care how adorable your kids are. OR your ESA (emotional support animal). I am not moving.

  19. frnklw|

    How about arriving at your seat and finding someone already sitting there, all settled in, who then asks if I mind him taking my seat so he could sit next to his wife? I didn’t say anything but thought after that I should have said no but didn’t want to cause a scene. You “have” to sit next to someone? Grow up. I traveled from Boston to Key West with three kids between 6 and 10, and we were not seated together. The flight attendant asked if I wanted her to ask people to move so we could sit together, and before I could reply my kids declined saying they were “all set” – they behaved as angels sitting alone.

  20. Sam|

    As a non family-attached member of society, who travels a lot and was faced with this more than once, it really bugs me when families put single travelers in this situation. Even the longest flight on earth is 16 hours and however much you love your husband, kids, sister, uncle, or fourth degree cousin am sure most people can survive being “separated” by five meters of seat rows for the duration of a flight. Often times members of said family will spend using their phones, watching their screens or sleeping. It really edges on entitlement in my book for families coming onboard and somehow feeling they’ve earn the right to seat privileges, disturbing other passengers and peer pressuring them into giving up their seat. You may be going on vacation with your band, but that one person maybe going to a dreaded funeral or a new job they’re already stressed about without you adding to their stress level because you need your emotional support humans next to you.

  21. Dave|

    The last time I bought tickets for a flight I did so in advance and chose seats… then when preparing to board, was assigned a completely different seat! Separated 3 travelers to different areas: myself, wife, n teenage niece. Paying extra didn’t count for Jack!!!

  22. Kim|

    In these days of having to PAY EXTRA a lot of the time to get a specified seat… I agree with everyone who politely says no, weighs ALL of the circumstances and what (everyone has to offer) if I do agree.. And if I don’t get a seat I had to PAY EXTRA for, I always request the airline REFUND MY SEAT MONEY! Don’t forget to do the same if you’re found in this situation! ESPECIALLY when your flight is canceled and the airline is responsible for your choice seat loss on your rebooked flight.
    ALWAYS ask for your money back if you don’t get the seat you PAID for

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *