Switching Seats on a Plane: Not a Good Idea

Don't Switch Seats on an airplane say the experts. Illustration by Dustin Elliott
Don’t Switch Seats on an airplane, say the experts. Illustration by Dustin Elliott

No More Switching Airline Seats! Here’s why

By Christopher Elliott

Enough with switching airline seats already. Swapping seats seems to be a thing lately. Maybe you’ve watched those viral videos, which feature people changing seats without permission and other entitled passenger behavior involving airline seats. Or maybe you’ve seen the Reddit threads in which passengers try to trick their fellow travelers into switching seats.

Someone has to say it, so I will: Please, stop trying to swap seats.

A recent survey by Kayak reveals that passengers are sharply divided on this issue. A narrow majority (54%) approved of switching seats, but only if you “ask politely.” But 64% of travelers said they would not allow seat switching with travelers who claim they’re nervous fliers, and 77% disallow it if the requester doesn’t like their assigned seat.

Allow me to read between the lines. You can ask to switch seats if you need to sit next to your young kids or an elderly relative you’re caring for.

But otherwise, stay put.

“Switching seats on a plane can sometimes be a tricky situation,” says Carla Bevins, who teaches business management communication at Carnegie Mellon University. She says there are some instances where you absolutely may not switch seats. For example, when you are in a different class of service, when you’re sitting in an exit row, or when the fasten seat belts sign is illuminated.

Why should you stay in your airline seat?

Why should you stay put? Apart from safety reasons, seat-switching is one of the easiest ways to get into a no-win confrontation with a fellow passenger. Just think, you could star in your very own viral video — or get kicked off the flight.

Changing seats can even make your flight more dangerous, both for you and your fellow passengers. Every flight has a manifest with information about each passenger. That can include allergies, special meals, or connecting flights.

At best, you may end up with someone else’s in-flight meal; at worst, you could end up using your EpiPen or even forcing an emergency landing because you’re having an allergic reaction to a meal or a nearby pet.

Smaller jets like this Porter Airlines Embraer are more susceptible to problems when passengers switch seats.
Smaller jets like this Porter Airlines Embraer are more susceptible to problems when passengers switch seats.

Smaller Planes Affected More

On smaller planes, a seat switch can affect the safety of the entire aircraft. Before each flight, the crew checks to ensure the aircraft is properly balanced. If you move, you could shift the plane’s balance in the wrong direction, making it harder to fly the plane.

But that’s not the only reason to sit in your assigned seat for the duration of the flight. Switching seats is disruptive. Too often, it ends with an unnecessary face-off between passengers.

Is it asking too much to just sit in your assigned seat?

Switching seats is rude, so don’t do it

When I asked etiquette experts about changing seats, I got an earful. In the past, they might have offered their best advice for changing seats politely. But the experts I consulted seemed to suggest most forms of seat-switching are just rude.

Think of it as going to a dinner party and someone has a card with your name on it on the table. And instead of sitting in your assigned seat, you toss the card and plop yourself down wherever you want. How impolite!

Rosalinda Oropeza Randall, an etiquette expert, says you don’t have to play along.

“If someone asks you to switch seats, you are not obligated to do so or even consider it,” she says. “You have the right to decline — politely, of course.”

Her pro tip: The other passenger may want to know why you won’t move. But you don’t have to give a reason. “You may say something like, ‘I prefer to stay where I am,'” she says.

An Etiquette Expert’s Thoughts

Diane Gottsman, an etiquette expert who runs the Protocol School of Texas, says seat switching should not be an issue.

“It’s always best to plan ahead if you know you’re going to need extra legroom or want to be seated next to your best friend,” she says.

I agree. But I think airlines deserve some of the blame for the seat-switching epidemic.

By forcing their economy class passengers to pay extra for seat assignments, they’ve created an underclass of passengers who show up for their flight without assigned seats and then try to negotiate their way out of the middle seat.

Airlines could end the seat-switching trend quickly if they allowed their passengers to choose their seats without hitting them up for more money. Until then, maybe you should just stick to your assigned seat.

Elliott’s tips for getting a better seat on a plane

Pay for it. Often, the cost of an assigned aisle or window seat is worth the price if you start to think about the difficulty of trying to persuade another passenger to switch with you. I know, airlines are making lots of money off these assignments. Personally, I think we should ban seat selection fees, but that’s another story.

Leverage your frequent flier program (if you must). Loyalty program members get access to better seats, often without paying extra. But you need to know these programs are not free. I personally believe that they are addictive and not useful for most air travelers — but again, that’s a topic for another time.

Fly on an airline without assigned seats. You stand a much better chance of getting a choice seat when there’s open seating, like on Southwest Airlines. Just make sure you’re in boarding group A or B to ensure a reasonably good selection.

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