Galley Gossip: 3 reasons flight attendants won’t allow passengers to switch seats in flight

Dear Heather,

What is the proper etiquette for switching to an open seat? Should I ask the flight attendant first? Is it okay to switch to another row if only one person is occupying the row?



Dear Rich,

Go for it! Switch seats. You don’t have to ask. But you might want to wait until everyone is on board before making your move. Worst case scenario a flight attendant might ask you to return to your original seat. Big deal, so what if you have to move back? Most of the time the open seat is yours for the taking – as long as it’s in the same cabin as your ticketed seat. Which brings me to the first class stowaway…

“Whenever I travel I always wear a nice suit and board last,” said the passenger seated beside me on a flight years ago. I don’t remember where we were going, but I wasn’t working so he had no idea what I did for a living. “As I’m passing through the first class cabin I’ll slide into an open seat. If the flight attendants say anything I’ll quietly offer fifty bucks.””And that works?” I asked, not sure what to make of the guy.

“Sometimes,” he laughed.

I told him what I did for a living. Then I added, “the money wouldn’t make a difference to me. I’d still send you back to coach.”

He looked perplexed. “Seriously? What if I gave you two-hundred dollars?”

I just smiled.

“Three hundred?”

Hey, I don’t blame the guy for trying. Just remember that if you do try to pull a fast one, we will find you, and we will send you back to where you belong.

Oh I know those first and business class seats are calling you. And yes, it is a shame when they go out unoccupied. But since flight attendants do not upgrade passengers once they’re on board a flight, don’t even bother asking. We’ll just tell you to speak to an agent. It’s the gate agent who has the upgrading power. This is because the agent is the one who has access to a computer in order to input frequent flier miles or credit card numbers that are needed to purchase a seat.

Every so often a passenger will actually score their own row. What that passenger may not realize is that they do not own the row. So if you would like to sit in an open seat beside one of these lucky passengers, be my guest. If the passenger complains or does not allow you to sit down, let the flight attendants know and we will inform the problem passenger that unless they purchased all three seats, the open seats are not theirs to keep.

Here are three reasons a flight attendant may ask you to return to your seat:

A PASSENGER PURCHASED TWO SEATS: While it doesn’t happen often, it does happen. I’ve seen it. Once. A single passenger boarded my flight carrying two boarding passes. Both of them were in his name. I didn’t even ask to see them, but he showed them to me anyway, in case any issues came up in flight. And he was a regular sized passenger.

A DISPLACED FAMILY IS ON BOARD: Flight attendants may need to use an open seat in order to move passengers around so that they can accommodate families who are not seated together. It’s not fair for singles, I know, but do you really want a kid screaming for his mother the entire flight?

BLOCKED SEATS: A seat can be blocked for all kinds of reasons. Missing seat belts and oxygen masks are two of the most common reasons. It doesn’t matter if the seat belt sign is off or how fast you think can run back to your seat in case of a decompression, the seat is blocked. Case closed. Go back to your seat!

Hope that helps, Rich. And here’s wishing you lots of open seats on your next flight!


UPDATE: Is has been brought to my attention by several flight attendants that not all airlines are created equal. Regional carriers dealing weight and balance issues do not allow customers to switch seats so freely. Also, flight attendants working for airlines with economy plus sections offering more room in coach, do recommend checking with a flight attendant first before moving to another seat, since certain sections are off limits to passengers in coach who did not purchase the extra space. And now with airlines charging for exit rows, bulkheads and aisle seats, switching to just any seat in your ticketed cabin may not be possible.

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Photo courtesy of Kathy Stewart and Waketheman

Be sure to check out Episode 5 of Travel Talk TV, which features a Santa Cruz beach adventure; explains why Scottish money is no good; shows how to cook brats the German way; and offers international dating tips!