Middle seat: where else would you want to be?

We all hate the middle seat … but how much? According to a survey commissioned by 3M, 56 percent of respondents would rather sit in traffic than a middle seat, with the same amount preferring a blind date (at least the getaway is easier). For 54 percent, a trip to the dentist is preferable. To avoid a middle seat, half said they’d take a later flight to avoid a middle seat, with 20 percent willing to spend a night in an airport hotel instead of spending a few hours crammed between two other passengers.

So, what bugs us about the middle seat? Everything, it seems. A hefty 84 percent didn’t want a nosy neighbor engaging in over-the-shoulder reading, with 83 percent lamenting the inability to stretch and the fact that they have to climb over someone to get to the lav. Then, of course, the “overweight” issue came up. Eighty percent feared being sandwiched between two large passengers. Finally, 71 percent don’t like the middle seat because there’s nowhere to rest your head.

Fortunately, being booked in a middle seat doesn’t have to mean that that’s where you’ll wind up. MSNBC was kind enough to offer a few tips:

1. Try to get out of it: start a communication campaign with the airline. Start a few days before your flight to see if there’s anything better (including an affordable upgrade). Check in 24 hours in advance (the earliest for most airlines), and try to change your seat. And, ask at the check-in counter. Finally, if you’re out of options, try the gate. Be polite and first in line, as both make a difference.

2. Look for a “2-3-2”: planes that have two seats, an aisle, three seats, an aisle and two seats only have one middle seat per aisle. Planes that are “3 & 3” have two middle seats per aisle. Do the math.

3. Move before your neighbor gets busy: if you need to get to the lav, fetch something from your overhead bin (putting a bag up there lets you put your feet under the seat in front of you) or anything else, do it early. Once the aisle seat dweller pops open his laptop or shuts his eyes, everything becomes a project.

Need more ideas?

Wall Street Journal’s McCartney: Airlines have gotten “carried away” with fees

Scott McCartney writes The Wall Street Journal’s “Middle Seat” column and is the author of the new book “The Wall Street Journal Guide to Power Travel: How to Arrive with Your Dignity, Sanity, and Wallet Intact.” With the travel season about to take off, I asked him for his thoughts on flying in the summer of 2009.

Q: What should air travelers expect this summer?

McCartney: I think this will actually be a very good summer to travel, if you can afford it. The recession has lowered ticket prices considerably, left hotel rooms far more available at lower prices and reduced congestion at airports and in the skies so flights are running more on time.

The dollar has rebounded some, and so it’s a good year to venture overseas. Crowds should be smaller and merchants should be more anxious for your business. We may well look back on this year and say there was a window of opportunity when the airline system and major tourist destinations didn’t bog down as much under the weight of summer crowds and travelers actually had the upper hand.

I’m taking my family to Europe — tickets were about half the price of what I probably would have paid last year. Hotel rooms seem to have good availability using points or reasonable rates in dollars. I just think that if you are able to do it financially, it’s a great time to go.

Q: I really like the subtitle to your book, “How to Arrive with Your Dignity, Sanity, and Wallet Intact.” What do you think is more important to travelers — dignity, sanity or intact wallet?

McCartney: Thanks. Full disclosure: It was my wife’s idea.

I think it depends on the traveler, but for most, the wallet is the bottom line. Travelers will endure a lot to save a few bucks — just look at the popularity of discount European airlines and the long bus rides, infrequent service, high fees, etc. that people put up with for a cheap fare. While indignities anger them and inane experiences do make them crazy, getting gouged is what really sends people over the edge with airlines.

I think to some extent it’s a reflection of the animosity travelers have toward airlines. Airlines do bad things to people, and people remember. Goodwill and warm consumer feelings get ruined when a bag is lost, a flight is canceled, a traveler is bumped, a crew times out leaving a planeload stranded. What’s more, airlines make the money part of the experience so difficult — changing prices, limited availability, etc, etc. You go to a car dealer to buy a car thinking that salesman is out to take as much advantage of you as possible, and you know you likely won’t get as good a deal as the guy next to you. You just assume that. And I think it’s much the same with airlines. Airlines battle their customers over money — not a good position to be in.

Q: I noticed that almost the entire book is dedicated to air travel. There’s a brief chapter on hotels and cruises. Why did you decide to emphasize air travel?

McCartney: You’re right — 29 pages on hotels and cruises in a 300-page book, so about 90 percent on airlines. There’s also stuff early on picking the right vacation and some general travel experience stuff.

The reason is that I believe the air part of any trip has the greatest potential for disruption. Vacations get ruined by the flight there or the flight home. Business travelers rarely lose contracts or have their lives turned upside down by hotels. Yet airlines dictate much of how they get their job done. The penalty for airline problems is severe for travelers. The airline ticket is a far more complicated transaction than renting a car or a hotel room. And airline-related issues stretch far: frequent flier programs, first-class upgrades, baggage service and fees, security and airport hassles–you name it.

I also believe that the airplane trip holds the greatest fascination for people. Soaring into the sky and traveling at 500 miles per hour still amazes us, and the operation of airlines today is enormously complex. I wanted to explain to people how it works — from how airlines price tickets to how the FAA operates the air-traffic control system. By understanding how things work, travelers are better prepared.

Bottom line: Flying is where people need the most help. The goal of the book is to help people improve their travels, and 90 percent of that does come on the airline side.

Q: How often do you fly, and if you don’t mind me asking, which loyalty programs do you participate in?

McCartney: I fly a couple of times each month. Not every week, but a mixture of long trips where I’m working on multiple stories and quick out-and-back trips to see a particular airline or report a particular angle.

I try to spread my flying out so I get to compare different airlines first-hand and try different hotels. I’ll take a trip just to try out a new airline and look for interesting innovations. I’m a member of the loyalty program at Delta, American, United, Continental, Northwest, US Airways, Southwest, jetBlue, AirTran, Starwood, Marriott and Hilton.

Q: When it comes to air travel, where do travelers lack understanding of the industry, generally speaking? Why do you think they don’t get it?

McCartney: Let me take the second first: They don’t get it because airlines do a poor job of explaining their business. I really believe there’s a major communications gap.

And I think it starts internally: Often airline managers don’t explain policies, decisions and practices well to their own employees. And that leads to lousy service. But it amazes me that there are business travelers riding the same airline every week who themselves run very complex businesses and they don’t understand a lot about why airlines do the things they do.

I think the lack of understanding comes on two fronts: the financial and the operational. Travelers often think airlines are jacking up fares and fees and somehow taking advantage of them when the airline is losing money on the ticket. It’s not like these companies are wildly profitable. But it goes back to the disparity that travelers face: sometimes a ticket costs $200; sometimes it costs $1,200 for much the same trip.

The penalties airlines impose seem irrational to consumers: $150 to change a ticket with a few keystrokes, plus the higher fare? Inconsistency leads to misunderstanding.

On the operational side, it’s also poor communication. The classic example: weather delays. Clear skies in New York, and the flight to Florida is delayed due to weather. You call your wife in Florida and she says it’s sunny and warm. Those lying airlines! The bad weather may be in North Carolina and that’s disrupted traffic up and down the East Coast, but airlines don’t take the time to explain.

Same with canceling flights — they’re just canceling because of light bookings! Most likely there is more to it than that, but the airline doesn’t explain. Same with lost baggage: No bag, where is it? The airline can’t tell you! That just increases anxiety. When will it get to me? The airline can’t say. How frustrating for the traveler!

Q: How are the airlines like the funeral home industry?

McCartney: There’s a good joke in here somewhere!

For many years one of my standard questions for airline executives has been, Is there any other industry that makes it so difficult to use its product? It’s fun to see them ponder that, and I really believe it’s an issue that is fundamental to the problems of the airline industry.

The many rules, comple
xities, penalties and difficulties of buying tickets and traveling by airline can discourage people from traveling. If your customers dread it, it’s not good for business.

Only one airline executive has given me an answer: Mike Gunn, the former marketing chief at American, once suggested health care was more complex and frustrating. He had a point. Perhaps that’s not the company that any industry wants to keep, right?

When I posed the rhetorical question in the first draft of the manuscript, my editor at Harper, Ben Loehnen, had an answer of his own: funeral homes. He did it for a chuckle, and I liked the comparison. On one level, funeral homes have opaque and confusing pricing, a reputation for gouging people who need services at the last minute and plenty of complexity and different service levels. On another level, you have to die to actually become a customer. So looking at it that way, it’s clearly more difficult.

Q: Is there a right way and a wrong way for an airline to charge a la carte fees? Can you give me and example of an airline that does fees right?

McCartney: I think value for the fee charged is the key, plus full disclosure of what the fees are and what you get. I think it’s perfectly reasonable to charge extra for United’s Economy Plus seating, for example. You get extra legroom, and for some people, having that option is terrific.

On the other hand, I think it’s ridiculous for US Airways and Northwest to be trying to charge for choice seats — aisle or window seats at the front of the airplane. Worse, it’s outrageous for Spirit to be charging fees for routine services that add no value – a fee to buy a ticket online instead of at an airport, for example, or even a fee to reserve a seat.

I also think airlines needs to look closely at how high they’ve raised some fees. As I mentioned, $150 to change a domestic ticket when you also charge any fare difference seems extreme. Is it fair to charge $100 to redeem a free ticket when you have marketed and enticed your customers into believing they can redeem miles for free travel? If I carry a pet into a cabin myself I’m charged $150 on Delta. If your luggage weighs 60 pounds, it’ll cost you $250 round-trip on United but only $100 on American and Continental.

Airlines have gotten carried away with some fees, I believe, because customers have begrudgingly accepted them and paid them. But in the long run there is a cost to those companies. If consumers don’t believe the price was fair, they may go elsewhere next time.

Q: Are airlines regulated enough? Where would you like to see the tighter regulation? And where do we need the government to take a more “hands-off” approach?

McCartney: I don’t think government should try to regulate customer service beyond the traditional regulatory role in any business: discrimination, accessibility, anti-trust, etc. Let the marketplace take care of companies with poor service. But I do believe government has a role in regulating safety, and the FAA often isn’t doing enough.

The Colgan/Continental commuter crash hearings at NTSB this week are a sickening reminder. Today, for example, an FAA safety inspector testified he knew of systematic safety violations. But did he do anything? Apparently not. It appears as though that captain should have never been in that seat flying that plane. That’s a major regulatory failure, and obviously a company failure, that killed 50 people.

Q: You seem to strongly endorse participating in an airline’s frequent flier program. Is there anyone who would not be well-served by collecting frequent flier miles?

McCartney: If infrequent travelers can supplement a mileage account with a credit card and other purchases, then it’s probably worthwhile. But if you really don’t fly enough or buy enough, or prefer to take credit-card rewards in some other form like cash or points rather than miles, then the frequent flier program can work against you.

Loyalty is the question. The risk is you’ll be trying to build miles and purchase a higher-priced ticket or opt for an inconvenient itinerary just to stick with a preferred airline. If you don’t travel regularly, you’ll pay more than if you weren’t a member of a program, and so that free ticket you hope to someday score, and may never get because of capacity restrictions, may cost you quite a bit of money. For many people, mileage-based credit cards may not be the best choice as well.

Q: If you could change one thing about the airlines, what would it be? And if you could change one thing about airline passengers, what would it be?

McCartney: Allow me to offer two for each.

On airlines, I’d simplify the business everywhere I could. A contract of carriage at many airlines is longer than an IRS Form 1040.

Secondly, I’d get airline CEOs and their boards to recognize that it’s not their financial prowess or legal intuition that matters, it’s their leadership ability. Airline CEOs are football coaches — though most don’t recognize that or aren’t comfortable with that). The successful ones are able to rally the troops and excite the customers.

Throughout my tenure covering airlines, the one constant has been that when the CEO loses labor, it’s over. The job will end. The CEOs who can effectively communicate plans, motivate the troops and get employees working together have run good airlines. The ones who lose trust, don’t inspire, can’t articulate clear goals and try to run the business as though it was a bank or telephone company always fail. It’s a different kind of business, and I think it requires different skills than just being strategically smart in the boardroom.

On passengers, I’d love to see less brow-beating by road warriors. Many of use have the mentality that the airline can do something better for me if I make a big-enough stink or yell at the airline employee until I win. And too often, it works!

It’s the obnoxious traveler who holds up the line for the rest of us, or insists on claiming that one last seat when there’s some poor kid with no status trying to get Home. Travel is tough, and travelers could do more to take care of each other.

To that end, my second simple change: Every passenger would ask first before reclining a seat back into someone’s lap. Space is tight, and too often a reclined seat makes life far worse for the passenger behind you. A reclined seat means they probably can’t open a laptop screen, for example. I think people should turn around and say something – “I’d like to recline my seat, just wanted to warn you…”

Maybe a compromise can be reached so there is still room for the laptop? Maybe the courtesy will prevent the passenger behind from kicking and kneeing the seat. Or my personal favorite, opening a newspaper so it brushes the head of the recliner.

Elliott is a syndicated travel columnist. You can read more interviews on his travel blog.

Model’s boyfriend puts the “bang” in Bangalore

It always starts with a drunken model. Always. Cover girl Sarah Hannon was beyond furious when awaking to find her boyfriend, Daniel Melia, engaged in a “sex act” with the woman next to him. It sounds like he had a middle seat and liked it!

Hannon fell asleep on a nine-hour flight from Bangalore to London, as anyone would hope to do on such a long flight. Oh, and having bent elbows with boyfriend certainly helped. Melia’s libido, however, resisted the powers of both fatigue and alcohol, and next seat neighbor, Clare Irby, was happy to help him out.

The alleged performance occurred under a blanket, and Melia and Irby thought nobody was the wiser … until a flight attendant stopped them, impeding pleasure and likely ending a show for many passengers bored with the in-flight movie. This is when Hannon woke up and Hannon started screaming.

The model was furious and had to be calmed by the flight crew. When Kingfisher Airlines Flight IT001 touched down at Heathrow, police boarded the plane and arrested all three. Melia and Irby were pinched for alleged indecency, while Hannon was nabbed for being drunk on an aircraft. All three made bail.

The local cops had little to say but got it right: “They certainly put the bang into Bangalore.”

[Via news.com.au]

Galley Gossip: A question about traveling with kids and scoring an extra seat

Dear Heather,

I’ve written to you before and now I have another question. So I’ve told you that we’re traveling w/ our one-year old next month. No car seat, etc. Are there any sneaky ways to insure that we could get an ’empty’ seat for her???? I think currently we have it booked so my husband gets the window seat and I get the aisle. We thought that might work as nobody would want to sit in the middle of us. But, I’m sure they’ll have to put a single traveler in the middle. We’re leaving on the 26th of December w/ American Airlines. I’m sure it will be busy, but what do you think?

Thanks so much!

Dear Marlo,

I remember your question, as my answer did get quite a rise out of many Gadling readers, especially those who do what I do for a living. Flight attendants everywhere scolded me for telling you that it was okay to travel without the car seat, even though I did point out that it was much safer to book the extra seat and take the car seat along with you. For those of you who missed that one, here’s a link to Galley Gossip: a question about traveling with car seats and strollers. If you’ll be traveling with kids during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday season, make sure to check it out, along with Galley Gossip: The best invention for kids on the airplane – CARES,

As for scoring a middle seat, Marlo, I think you did all that you can do, as that’s exactly what I would have told you to do – book the aisle and window and leave the middle seat open. Remember, you are traveling during one of the busiest holidays of the year, so if the flight is not full, it’s probably getting there. I have yet to work an empty flight this year. Since the back of the airplane is a lot less desirable than the front (and also bumpier if there’s turbulence) you could move your seats to the rear of the aircraft, cross your fingers, and pray no one wants to sit that close to the toilet. It’s your best bet. I’d also like to point out that there are going to be mostly other families traveling during the holiday season, so that single traveler sitting between you and your husband is probably not a single traveler at all, but a traveler displaced from their family, a traveler who is praying he or she can get you to move to another seat! So be patient. Be kind. And remember, holiday travel is never fun. Unless you can just relax and go with the flow.

Your question brought back a memory from long ago, so there’s one more thing I’d like to mention. If you do decide to book the aisle and window seats, leaving the middle seat open in an attempt to score the extra room, remember that middle seat passengers are people too. Please, do not talk over the unfortunate person who ends up getting stuck between the two of you. And please, do not pass things over the person, particularly food, even if you think that person is sleeping. Twice I’ve awoken to loud voices, crumbs in my lap, and my magazine gone after getting stuck between two people traveling together. For more information on what you should and should not do concerning the middle seat, check out my other post, Middle Seat Etiquette.

Happy Travels

Heather Poole

Have a tip when traveling with kids? Post a comment below. I’d love to hear from you.


Photo courtesy of matth

Galley Gossip: A question about moving from coach to first class when there are open seats

Dear Heather,

I love your blog, I always wanted to be a flight attendant but was told by many I’m probably too short so now I’m going for an Air Traffic Controller job. But I do have a question for you. On the past 4 flights I was on I was stuck in the middle seat because no window seats were available and I can’t sit in the aisle. But I was stuck in between to large passengers that had to keep the arm rest up because they were to large to fit in the seat with it down. There were open seats in 1st class and none in coach on all the flights but on all the flights but one the flight attendant said there’s nothing they could do. Was there really nothing they could do or did they just not want to deal with it, and I should add these were not short flights, 2 were Chicago to Phoenix and 1 was Phoenix to Charlotte, and the one the flight attendant did move me to 1st was JFK to Phoenix.


Dear Melissa,

I’m so happy to hear you like the blog. Thank you. First I must congratulate you on choosing an amazing career path in the aviation industry. I’ve always been in awe of those who work in air traffic control. As for being too short to become a flight attendant, height requirements may differ between airlines. The airline I work for requires a flight attendant to be tall enough to reach into the overhead bin and grab the emergency equipment located inside.

Your question brought back memories. I had just started my career as a flight attendant when I found myself walking down the aisle on a flight from New York to Los Angeles, after pushing back from the gate, only to find two passengers standing up and fighting over the same seat in coach.

“You need to take your seats!” I’m sure I had said.

“There are no other seats!” one of them probably said, because it was a full flight and what I didn’t know at the time was we were one seat short.

Remember, this happened before we had that computer in the terminal that scans your ticket prior to boarding, which explains why we not only had a seat dupe that day, but why we also had one passenger too many onboard the aircraft. Did I happen to mention we had already left the gate? We were moving on the tarmac! Immediately I called the flight attendant in first class, who spoke to the captain, who told the flight attendant in charge to tell me to move a passenger up to first class and fast! There were open seats available.

“Oh, okay,” I remember saying, as I thought to myself, WOW, I’m about to make someones day!

Quickly I walked up the aisle, looking for someone, anyone, dressed nice enough to sit in first class. Don’t forget, this was thirteen years ago and people dressed a tad bit better, and ticket prices were more than a tad bit expensive, and we were taxiing out on the tarmac, remember! So I was feeling a tad bit panicky. I stopped at the first passenger I found wearing a business suit. What can I say, he looked the part.

As we made our way to first class, I noticed a few flight attendants and passengers looking at us curiously. “Here’s your seat,” I told the nice man, who had become even nicer upon finding out he’d be traveling in first class.

After takeoff the phone rang. It was the Captain. He wanted to speak to me. In person. Oh god, I remember thinking, what now?

Slowly I walked to the cockpit. I knocked on the door. Two seconds later I stood looking at the back of a very full head of wavy blond hair, a head of hair I had seen being combed quite thoroughly minutes before departure. The nicely combed hair turned and a thick mustache looked at me.

“Have a seat,” the captain said, and he said this very seriously.

I gulped. Plopping down in the jumpseat behind the first officer, I remember thinking, this is not going to be good.

It wasn’t.

As the Captain scolded me for moving a coach passenger to first class, instead of moving a business class passenger to first class AND THEN moving a coach passenger to business class, all I could do was stare at the stache as it bounced up and down and spoke to me in a very nasty tone. “You know I should probably report you for this!”



What I wanted to say was, Seriously? Because I mean seriously? It was a mistake. Granted, a very big one. Instead I said something like, “Please don’t! I didn’t know. I’ll never do it again!”

Scared and embarrassed, I walked out of the cockpit, clicking the door shut behind me, not joining the other (more senior) flight attendants in the galley for a chat. About me. And my stupidity. And walked back to my post in coach, head hung low. I just…well…it had never occurred to me to do the whole song and dance while we were moving on the tarmac. Remember, I was new. And stupid.

But I never did do stupid again.

Now that I’ve been flying thirteen years and spend a lot of time working in business class, I know just how precious (and expensive) those first and business class seats are. Our frequent fliers put their names on a standby list days before the flight for those oh so precious (and expensive) seats. That list has a tendency to get very long. Each passengers knows exactly where their name is on that list. Don’t believe me? On your next flight ask a passenger sitting in the exit row what number they are on the list. You’ll see. And trust me when I tell you that no one is going to bump in front of one of those names on that list, no matter how miserable you are in coach.

Recently I worked a flight that was delayed because one of our frequent fliers got bumped from coach to business ahead of another frequent flier, a frequent flier who was not going to let that happen, who did not let that happen, and who found herself and her bright red power suit in the business class seat half an hour later. Good for her. Hey, it was her seat. Needless to say, bumping from one cabin to another isn’t as easy as it sounds.

Even if there are open seats onboard.

From day one it is drilled into the flight attendants head to respect each cabin, as well as the cabin service. That means if a passenger in business class is traveling with someone in coach, we can not allow the business class passenger to take any business class items to coach. Why? Because the companion paid for coach. Not business. It doesn’t matter if the business class passenger is not going to eat the dessert or watch the movie. And yes, it is a big deal to cross cabins. No, I am not being mean. I’m just doing my job. Abusing my power? What power? Okay, please stop arguing with me. And please, whatever you do, do not try to hide it under your shirt and sneak it to the back when I disappear from your sight! Don’t do it because I already know you’re going to do it. I’m watching you. (Even when I’m not watching you.)

Now to answer Melissa’s question (finally!) about getting stuck between two large people in coach. I’m sorry to hear that happened, and not just once, but three times! Unfortunately there really was nothing your flight attendants could do if there were no seats available in coach. Even if there were open seats in first class. They were not being mean. It’s not that they didn’t care. I’m sure they felt terrible for you. But flight attendants can get into a lot of trouble for moving you to a first class seat without doing it in the proper manner. Unfortunately the proper manner requires a credit cart. Who would know? We have “ghost riders” onboard who watch us to make sure this sort of thing does not happen. As for the time you were moved up to first class, I’d chalk it up to good luck and not count on that happening again. I do not know many flight attendants who would have done such a thing.

Of course it’s not fair that you paid for a seat and did not get to sit comfortably in that seat on your flight, so my advice to you would be to write the airline a letter and explain to them what happened. I’m sure they will compensate you somehow, someway. If this happens to you again, make sure to tell the flight attendant while you’re still on the ground. That’s when something can be done – if at all possible. Or take it a step farther and talk to the agent at the gate. The gate agent is the one with the power to move you, not the flight attendant.

I hope your next flight is a better one.

Heather Poole


PHOTOS COURTESY OF: (business class) Pat+, (first class passenger) Ammar Abd Rabbo, (Crew) Jfithian