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Airplane Etiquette: Whose Seat Is It Anyway?

Seat squatters and seat swappers. I’m talking about travelers not satisfied with their assigned seats on an airplane who board the plane and then try score a better seat, usually at the expense of inconveniencing someone else. Before the advent of Basic Economy fares where you waive the ability to select seats in advance in exchange for a lower fare, seat squatters and swappers were rare. Now it seems like every flight I take these days has at least one, often several, and they almost always add drama to the already chaotic process of boarding an airplane. So, what can you do if you encounter a seat squatter or swapper on your next flight? If you took the trouble to pick a seat that works for you, and likely paid more for it...then why willingly give your seat to someone who didn't? Just say no, and don't feel guilty about it.

If you are a frequent traveler, chances are at some point you’ve misread your boarding pass and parked yourself in the wrong seat. That’s not a seat squatter…that’s an honest mistake, one that I’ve made a time or two. And when I’ve made that mistake, I apologize for my error and move to my assigned seat.

Seat squatters are travelers who intentionally sit in someone else’s assigned seat because they don’t like the seat they are assigned. Seat swappers likewise don’t like their assigned seat, but rather than squatting they try to find someone willing to swap seats to get what they want. Both squatters and swappers will often justify their actions with a back story that sounds compelling, at least in their own minds.

I have zero sympathy for seat squatters who intentionally occupy my assigned seat knowing it isn’t theirs, regardless of their rationalization. Seat squatters occasionally resort to bullying tactics to get their way. They’ll argue there isn’t that much of a difference between my assigned seat and theirs, even though there almost always is, and that I should just accept the fact that someone else is sitting in my seat and let the flight crew get on with boarding the rest of the passengers. No. Get out of my seat!

Seat swappers are more subtle, usually trying to play on the sympathy of their fellow travelers. If they aren’t asking someone to swap seats so they can sit next to their kids, they’re claiming some medical disability. I’ve heard both seat squatter and seat swappers claim they get motion sickness when they have to fly in a middle seat, or that their doctor told them they can’t sit in a middle seat because they are prone to blood clots and middle seats are too confining. I don’t pass judgement on their reasons…just their lack of planning.

There are no right or wrong answers when it comes to dealing with seat squatters and swappers…just choices. If a seat squatter has my seat and refuses to move, I have zero sympathy for their rationalizations…I get a flight attendant involved. There is no point trying to argue with a seat squatter that refuses to move…maintaining order on the plane is the flight crew’s job, not mine. After checking boarding passes, the flight crew almost always make the squatter move or risk being thrown off the plane.

Not all seat squatters are confrontational. I encountered a serial seat squatter in my buklhead row aisle seat on a flight some years ago who used charm to get his way. The charm didn't work on me. It turns out, both the middle and window seats next to me were unoccupied so when I insisted on occupying my assigned aisle seat, the serial squatter moved over to the window seat, also not his assigned seat. As the flight crew went about preparing for take-off, he bragged to me about his approach to getting seat upgrades through squatting and then smooth talking the flight crew into giving him an upgrade when they asked him to move to his assigned seat. I watched as he tried to charm the flight attendant into letting both of us move up to business class, which on our flight was half empty. He sure was a smooth talker, but this time it didn’t work. The flight crew did allow him stay in the bulkhead row, and he didn’t seem too disappointed with that outcome. Probably because his assigned seat was in the middle of the last row on the plane.

When it comes to seat swappers, it’s OK to say no, even if their circumstances are so sad it makes you want to cry. Of course you have no way of knowing whether it is true or BS, but that's another problem. Which is why when I say no to a seat swapper, I feel no guilt. is also OK to say yes to a seat swapper. I am empathetic when it comes to parents traveling with kids. I have on occasion agreed to swap seats so a parent could sit next to their child, I draw the line when someone claims medical necessity. Everybody has the same opportunity to find a seat that meets their special needs as I do, so I feel no guilt about declining to let them make their problem my problem.

It bugs me more than a bit that travelers who express concern over their seat assignment when they check in are directed by gate agents to board the plane and ask the flight crew to fix their problem. In my experience that has become the gate agents’ default position…deflect the problem rather than try to solve it. As if the flight crew doesn’t already have enough to do during boarding. The only thing I’ve ever seen a flight crew do with a seat swapper is direct them to try to find another passenger willing to swap as they go on about their thankless chore of getting everyone seated so the plane can push off on time. Yet another deflection, but a necessary one.

Every now and then, in the interests of getting a packed flight off the ground and when I've boarded late, I’ve had a flight attendant allow a squatter to keep my assigned seat and they’ve reseated me. When that happens, I don’t put up a fuss. Flight crews work hard and get enough grief from everyone else without me piling on. Most of the time. They usually try to find me a comparable seat, and once it even got me an upgrade to business class.

There has only been one occasion when I’ve encountered a seat squatter and I ended up on the losing end of the matter. I boarded late, and the squatter in my seat refused to move. Apparently, the flight attendant told him he could sit there since the seat was seemingly unoccupied as boarding was almost complete. That was his story anyway. I called the flight attendant over, only to be told the airplane door was closing and I needed to take the only seat they could find for me…a middle seat at the back of the plane. Which was probably the squatter’s assigned seat. I was pissed. Not so much because the flight attendant refused to make the squatter move, but because I could see there were empty seats in business class, yet they put me in a middle seat in the economy section. As much respect as I have for flight crews, there are times when they can do better, and this was one of those times. I did get the airline to refund the premium seating fee I paid for, but that’s all I got out of it. That and a sore body from a long flight in a middle seat.

Seat squatters and seat swappers are an unfortunate fact of life with flying that isn’t going to change as long as the airlines continue to monetize seat selection. Everyone buying a plane ticket has the same ability to choose a seat that works for them, and yes…sometimes you have to be willing to pay more for that choice. When a traveler chooses not to, whether because of unique circumstances or they just wanted to save a few bucks, that’s their problem. I don’t let them make it mine. At least, I try not to. Most of the time I succeed, and when I don’t…I buckle up and let it go. You really don’t have any other choice.

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