Galley Gossip: Switching seats, exit row safety & asking for upgrades

Recently on a flight a passenger took the empty seat beside me. He had an assigned seat that he left behind. If by luck of the draw I had an empty seat (true not paid for), then it seems to me that as a beneficiary of said luck that I have inherited certain rights. If the other guy had stayed in his OWN seat, I would have had the enjoyment of more space. His moving AFFECTED me. The only reason I point this out is because while my situation was benign, I know that sometimes these little irritations or frictions on flights escalate into real on board conflicts (fights), and while I am describing out a pretty subtle point here, I think that it is better for the flight crew to mediate between passengers using preventive practices (etiquette, courtesies, “rules” etc.) rather than letting passengers resolve them themselves, in those cases where we are dealing with seat assignments at least. – Trevor

I’m going to tell you what 90% of the flight attendants I know would say. You paid for a seat. One seat. Not two seats. Not an entire row. Just a single seat. So if a passenger wants to switch seats, that’s okay. The passenger is allowed to sit in “your” row. While at my airline passengers are free to move to any open seat available in their ticketed cabin, other airlines (regional carriers dealing with weight and balance issues and airlines who charge extra for certain seats in the same cabin), require passengers to ask a flight attendant before swapping seats. If the flight attendant says it’s okay, it’s okay, the passenger can move.

Just because you were lucky enough to to score an entire row to yourself does not mean you have “inherited certain rights.” Oh sure it’s annoying when someone who already has a seat invades your space, but imagine you are the one stuck in an undesirable seat and there are two open seats in the row behind you, wouldn’t you move? Should a passenger have to suffer just because someone else is the “beneficiary of said luck” when there is plenty of room for both passengers to stretch out and relax?

In the future, if you’d rather not sit next to anyone, try making your row a little less appealing. The most popular seat on the airplane is the aisle seat. Take it! Otherwise someone will plop down beside you. Then, after takeoff, spread out. Pull the tray table down and place something on top of it. Put a bag, coat, or book in the seat beside you. Pretend to sleep. Not many people are ballsy enough to wake a sleeping passenger. Try traveling with a packet of Kleenex. No one wants to sit next to the sick guy. Or better yet, travel with a child. Works for me. Passengers avoid kids like the plague. That said, if someone still wants to sit in your row, they can. So be prepared to move your things out of the way.Airlines are charging for exit row seats and I have been on two flights where they have remained empty and flight attendants required payment from passengers who requested to switch to them. My question is what happens in case of an emergency landing? Do you think it is safer to have an able bodied person willing to open the door sitting there? I can visualize pandemonium as people rush to the door. I think gate agents or flight attendants should be able to offer these seats to qualified passengers! – Laura

While it makes sense to have willing and able bodied passengers who meet the exit row criteria seated in an exit row in case of an emergency evacuation opposed to leaving those seats vacant, FAA does not deem it necessary. I could tell you why I think this is, but it doesn’t matter what I think, or what you think for that matter. It is what it is. My question to you is, if flight attendants and agents working for an airline charging an extra fee for the exit row could move passengers to the vacant seats for free, how would they determine which lucky passengers to choose without creating the same type of pandemonium? With all that leg room, the exit row is the most sought after row on the airplane! That said, I understand why some airlines, mostly discount carriers, are charging the extra fee. They have to stay in business somehow!

At my airline we do not charge a fee for the exit row, but our ticket prices are higher than most discount carriers and the exit row is often blocked just for frequent fliers. Nine times out of ten the most elite frequent fliers occupy the exit row and bulkhead seats. So while my airline isn’t charging a fee for the row, they are asking for something even more – passenger loyalty. It comes in the form of miles. So what’s worse, an airline charging a small price to anyone willing to pay for the extra space, or an airline who only rewards a select few? Wouldn’t you rather be able to purchase the seat than not even have a shot at it?

This summer my husband and I will be traveling internationally. (New York to Warsaw) We have never asked for an upgrade to first class. If the agent says there are seats available, is there a charge? Or just willingness to fill a few seats? Additionally, what is the “polite” way to request an upgrade? – Lecia

While it never hurts to ask, it’s highly unlikely you will get an upgrade to first class free of charge. Not with airlines losing money the way they are these days. Because so many people travel often, it’s unfair to upgrade one group of passengers over another without going through the proper procedures. Trust me, passengers are keeping tabs. If an agent were to upgrade a passenger for free, rest assured that agent would hear about it in the form of a complaint letter from another passenger who also wanted an upgrade. For an airline employee, upgrading passengers for free is not worth losing a job over. Remember passengers are miserable, flights are full, and agents are under a lot of pressure to get airplanes out on time, so if you decide to give it a shot, be polite, friendly, and honest about what you want. Agents have heard it all, every story in the book, from pregnancy to bad backs. An honest approach will only work to your advantage. Whatever you do, do not hover over an agent. That will only work against you. Simply wait until the agent has a free moment to ask your question, and then, after your request has been made, step away from the desk. The last thing an agent needs is added stress.

Photos courtesy of Matt Sidesinger and Rnair