Seat Swap Requests: What Do You Do?

The economy class cabin on a Boeing 747-438 operating as flight 127 by Qantas Airways on Monday, April 1, 2013 appears to be full during a flight from Sydney to Hong Kong. What if someone asked to swap seats with you? Photograph by FlyerTalk member Strawb. Click on the photograph for a trip report written by Strawb.

You take your seat aboard the aircraft, ready for your flight and hoping that it departs on time. You are sitting in that coveted seat: perhaps it is in an exit row where you have more legroom; or a bulkhead where there is nobody in front of you to recline his or her seat; or an aisle seat for a quick exit to the lavatory or to leave the aircraft upon completion of the flight; or a window seat where you can enjoy some of the best views or lean your head against the wall for a quick nap…
…and then someone approaches you, asking if you can swap your seat so that he can be with his wife or she can be with her child.
What do you do?
Neither airline reservations systems nor passengers are perfect. Flights become full. Passengers may not perform their due diligence in securing desired seats — or perhaps there was a swap of equipment which led to the separation of two people traveling together, which inevitably leads to the seat swap request.
Typically, one of two scenarios occurs: you either say “no problem” and agree to swap seats; or you politely decline. Simple enough, right?
Not always. FlyerTalk members relate their seat swap request “horror stories” — and while seat swap requests may not be as nefarious as people who poach seats which have already been assigned to other passengers, some of them are experiences which many of us would rather forget.
Perhaps you are “forced” to swap your seat as a result of the lesser of two evils. Consider the experience of FlyerTalk member wimpypipsqueak, who swapped seats after being told by a father that “you better swap seats — otherwise you’ll have nanny and a screaming kid in the middle.”
By the way, I intend to write an article about traveling with children in the future, although there had been some discussion about airline flights for adults only — but I digress.
Let us not forget that now that airlines are charging extra for certain seats for passengers who have not earned elite status in their frequent flier loyalty programs, a seat swap may not be completed as easily as a result of simply asking. The reason of why you reserved that seat for that flight may have evolved from comfort or convenience to price: “I paid $25.00 extra for this seat, and I am not about to take your middle seat by the rear lavatory. Sorry.”
If the response from the person with the seat request was “I will pay you $50.00 for that seat. I need to sit next to my son, who is nervous about his first flight and needs for me to be sitting next to him”, what would you do?
According to FlyerTalk member flydrha, a flight attendant reportedly initially asked flydrha to swap a coveted Economy Plus aisle seat with a fellow passenger traveling with a large dog seated in a regular economy class middle seat before offering a Economy Plus middle seat. Although flydrha felt bad, the seat swap was not executed. What would you have done?
FlyerTalk member rymetymeuk was prepared to offer $100.00 to a fellow passenger in the business class cabin to swap seats so that he may sit next to his pregnant wife who has a fear of flying. If you were that passenger, would you swap seats?
Could the answer be in the form of a software application program for your “smartphone” called SeatSwapr? It purports to check seat availability in real time where you can either offer your seat for trade or place an offer on a seat you want. Can you actually profit by securing a desired seat and selling it to the highest bidder? I have no idea — and, surprisingly, there is no discussion to be found on FlyerTalk about SeatSwapr. Regardless, I do not intend to create a business plan on how I can earn a living swapping seats for profit by using SeatSwapr — but what do I know? Some enterprising person might be able to earn a few extra bucks per year swapping seats aboard aircraft.
Then again, sometimes seat swaps can be negotiated before a flight. Have you ever been paged in an airport lounge to work out a seat swap with a fellow passenger?
You do not necessarily need to be active in the seat swap exchange to be impacted as a result. Consider the dichotomy experienced by FlyerTalk member ddrost1, who relates two stories: one where a teenaged girl threatened loudly to throw up on her mother if she did not switch her window seat with her middle seat; and one where an aisle and an aisle seat separated ddrost1 from an attractive woman — only to have some guy take that empty aisle seat where he and ddrost1 eventually engaged in a seat swap to the chagrin of that guy.
Sometimes a swapping of seats can occur without your input, as has supposedly happened to FlyerTalk member kate21677, who complained that her husband decided without first consulting with her to honor a seat swap request in the premium class cabin where she would be sitting in a bulkhead row, which she “hates.”
It is important to note that — due to the factors, policies and procedures of the upgrading of passengers to seats in the premium cabin aboard an airplane — that two people or three people in a family may not have seats together even though they are seated in the same cabin
…and sometimes the upgrade procedure can benefit you if you are seated in the economy class cabin next to the companion who is sitting in the premium class cabin and asks you to swap seats. The chances of that happening are slim, but it does happen — and you get to reap the windfall…
…unless the two people want to swap seats with each other between cabins during the flight rather than be together — but that is a story for another time.
The problem is that there are only so many seats on only so many flights. While there are some people who care more about arriving at their destination safely and on time than what seat is assigned to them, to accommodate every passenger with his or her preferred seat is nearly impossible.
I attempt to be as helpful as possible — but within reason, of course. I am not going to swap a seat towards the front of the aircraft with someone who is seated in that middle seat near the lavatory at the rear of the aircraft. However, I will usually accommodate requests for people who want to sit next to their traveling companions.
Of course, I have been on both sides of the seat swap request. Although I rarely ask to swap seats, I am usually successful because I am respectful and polite to the fellow passenger of whom I am requesting to exchange seats. As I have posted numerous times, politeness and respect towards others are your best tools in securing requests in getting what you want. However, I have had a few denials — one of them which was inexplicably and unnecessarily rude and without reason for the refusal to exchange seats, so I let it go. I expect to be treated with politeness and respect in return — but what can I do? Success 100 percent of the time is rare.
Anyway, what are your thoughts about swapping seats aboard the aircraft with fellow passengers? What do you believe is the proper etiquette to follow and practice? Do you have a seat swapping experience you would like to share?
  1. Many times my husband and I will get upgraded but the upgrade seats won’t be together. I (as in not my husband) will generally politely ask if a seat swap is possible. If they say no, then that is the end of it for me. The person booked his/her seat and they do not owe me a swap even if the seat is comparable. You are asking for a favor – the person is not required to do it.
    My worst story was on a United flight eons ago where I had an aisle seat and the mother had the middle seat next to me. She wanted me to trade with her 5 year old child who was one row up and in a middle seat. When I declined, she huffed and puffed at me like I was the ogre and how dare I refuse her. She didn’t even ask nicely. She also didn’t ask the woman across the aisle to switch with her. What probably would have gotten her what she wanted is if she had the child come up to me and say something like – my mommy told me to ask the nice lady if I could sit next to her. Much harder to turn down a polite child than a rude parent. At the end of the flight I stood up and turned away from her as quickly as possible and she had the nerve to tap me on the arm. I whirled around and told her not to touch or speak to me. She was trying to say something about my mother who wasn’t there.
    My takeaway – ask nicely and be gracious regardless of the answer.

  2. I hate middle and window seats, and have asked many a time if I can take the aisle and if the person says no I take no offense at all. I did see recently a guy ask for a swap to be near his son, and the gentleman and his co-worker had 2 aisle seats and did not want to switch–understandbly so–the guy started complaining “have a heart, I want to be near my son” and the gentleman said “No”. It got pretty obnoxious–you can ask–but you have no right to someone elses seat.

  3. Its so much easier now..You just say sorry I paid $XX Dollars for this seat many months ago.

  4. Excuse me, are you from the past? 🙂
    Nowadays people choose seats online on the airline carriers website, that would make life easier. Don’t you think so?

  5. I only swap if the seat is the exact same and the swap is me moving forward and the swap person moving back. Otherwise no swap.
    I book aisle seats and plan to keep the seat I have. AA for example charges extra for most aisle seats. If you need/want to sit next to our child then pay extra and reserve the premium seat. If you can’t afford to pay extra – then you likely can’t afford to be traveling at all.

  6. I booked a seat on Air France. I had prebooked an aisle seat. When getting my boarding pass I didnt bother to check the seat. On arrival in the aircraft I found they had given me a middle seat. I called the flight attendant to ask for my aisle seat. They said the flight was full and they would look after it when it was airborne. I said if Im not in an aisle seat before takeoff I was getting off the plane. I got my aisle seat. I know that they say seating may be changed but they should inform you at the time they want to change it as sometimes you may the more compelling reason to stay where you are!

  7. Oh boy, could I tell a story or two about my experiences. It seems that men flying alone are frequently asked to move. On numerous occasions and the most recent on Hawaiian from HNL to LAS had booked a nice seat only to be asked to swap with a seat, way, way way back in the back of the plane. The seat was a window where my preference is always an aisle seat. It never fails and really it seems the only way to avoid it is to purchase a seat in first class.

  8. There have been multiple times (18-20ish) that I have received an elite upgrade, but my daughter has not (although she is also elite, and we have been on the same reservation). Every time this happens, I smile at the agent and say thank you, even though my request for my daughter has been denied. I sit next to my daughter, awaiting the person who is to sit next to her. When the person arrives, I ask them to look at the seat number, and then to decide whether or not they would like to switch. Sometimes, seeing the smile on a stranger’s face (and their excitement) is better than having the airline assign that seat. It is much more fun to keep the upgrade and pass the fun along at my own discretion.

  9. I am a single men and have been asked countless time to swap. More often that not I will say sure, why not? On a 2-2.5 hour flight, it doesn’t matter where I sit. Yes, I will accept a worse seat. Similarly, transatlantic lately have been in the business cabin and as far as I have access to the aisle (which is always in the arrangements I had the luck to fly with) all beds are equal to me. So, if a couple wants to seat next to each other, again, why not?
    Now, if we are on the narrow slice between the two, like a four hour Chicago-Vancouver flight, it’s superb likely I will be on some paid for seat, if you have the audacity to ask for a swap, I will laugh and if you offer money I will tell you that sorry it’s not about the money.

  10. I agree that it’s absolutely rude and unacceptable when people simply sit down in a seat that isn’t theirs and when you get there to take your preassigned seat, they ask if you’d mind swapping seats with one they should have been in. If it’s “tteibel” (a couple of posts up), no problem of course, but it hasn’t been for me yet. It gets to the point that I board a plane just hoping that maybe my seat will be empty when I reach it. People, you don’t have a right to sit in someone else’s seat. A polite request is one thing, a presumptuous squat is something else entirely.

  11. If I book the seat in advance and pay more for it (delta) then no. Unless its an elderly person then I will. But if you have kids and neglected to get seats together I’m sorry I’m not responsible for your poor planning.
    This actually reminds me of a family guy episode LOL

  12. @chx1975
    Wouldn’t it be much easier to manage your flight & seats online? You can be rest assured that no one will ever change your seat, as long as you are not on a stand-by-seat? Right?

  13. I always pay to choose my seat online when I buy my ticket. Unfortunately, about 50% of the time, the airline changes the seat I’ve chosen before I get on the plane. So managing your flight and seats online doesn’t always work.

  14. On AA flight right now. Asked to do a seat swap – from 5E to 5B – so a couple could sit together. No issue at all – since this was an equivalent aisle seat in F. FA asked nicely. I just let the FA know that I had a pre-order for F meal, so he promptly told the F FA about pre-order seat swap.

  15. First if the person approaching me is nice about “asking” then Id consider it. Usually I dont give up an exit row seat. But for seat poaches that plop down in my seat before me expecting I will just swap, whether its coach or first – no way! Its rude.

  16. Why not address the issue as to where the problem is. Airlines have the itineraries of which people are traveling together. You would think that with all the sophisticated software they would be able to seat the passengers together. Even online they can designate seats which are not available for single seating.
    Next, passengers come at the last minute at the airport hoping to find seats together. Why, if it is important to you can’t you come 2-3 hrs early to get the seats.
    This is a mess created by the airlines and the passengers are sheeps.

  17. 5000 mile voucher or $100 cash and yes, I will switch seats… that is, for a short domestic flight.

  18. Equivalent seat and a polite request usually garners favorable responses from me. I can see how elites in Eco+ rows can be a bit miffed about a swap out. If you’re in aisle already, you probably can politely suggest that the middle swap would be easier for the econ person to step into an econ+ seat–wouldn’t it?

  19. The ONLY time I will switch seats if it is for an equal or better seat (i.e. seat 2b for 2c if I am upgraded). If a couple or someone with a kid gets upgraded after me, I am not going to trade my aisle seat for a window seat so they can sit with their spouse or kid. I figure I either had paid for a first class seat at booking and am not going to switch, or if I am upgraded I got that seat before them because I fly a lot more miles. If it’s that important for someone to sit with their spouse or kid then they should either buy first class seats on booking so they can sit together or deny the upgrade and sit together in coach.
    What really gets to me is when I am not upgraded and in economy comfort or have an exit row (one of the perks of flying so much) or even just a regular aisle and someone that doesn’t fly much will ask me to switch seats because they were too cheap to pay for premium seats for the whole family.

  20. I don’t have any problem saying no for a seat that isn’t equivalent. I have had people get offensive (I mean, really?) because I wasn’t willing to take their middle seat so they could travel with their wife.
    What I find particularly presumptuous and obnoxious is when someone is already sitting in my seat when I arrive and asks to stay there. Where are peoples etiquette?? Take your own seat first!

  21. Another huge consideration is overhead bin space. If you come to me and expect me to move to a different area of the plane after all the bin space is full and the new seat is far away (especially forward in the cabin, which makes deplaning very difficult), I am most likely going to say no. I do not want the stress of trying to find a new place for my bags, or have to go to the other aisle (if widebody) to get my things during flight or at the end of the flight.

  22. Recently on SNA to ORD I saw (I assume) a Platinum who got the last two seats in first class struggling with the FA over how many upgrades were in his account and they eventually sent him back out to the gate to pay for three more upgrades to cover his wife’s seat and I was feeling sorry for him. He and his wife both ended up in window seats and it seemed like based the hard time he was having (and especially because he didn’t ask) I offered to switch with his wife and take the less desirable window. Not the first time I have seen couples separated who didn’t ask me to switch so I volunteered. Good karma for them for not asking, good karma for me for volunteering.

  23. I have volunteered to change seats when I am on short haul in business. I consider it a courtesy to do that for people who want to sit with a colleague or an act of kindness for a family. The seats are basically the same so I don’t care.
    I will usually not change if I am in the back on a short haul because I paid for that aisle seat. I resent having the person make a fuss when I will not change. I paid for the seat and typically, the person that wants the changem, selected the lowest possible fare. I have changed when I was stuck next to an obese person that overflowed the seat or someone that had B.O next to me. We’ve all had one of those and I expect that 10 minutes after the swap the poor soul that took my seat will never ask for a swap again. My exception to all this is that I will gladly give up my seat for someone in military uniform. They are typically young kids and it is the least I can do. I’m not the only one that does that because there are usually a few people that will ask if the military personnel want to sit together.

  24. I have made several friends by agreeing to swap seats with people. I won’t swap if it will put me in a middle seat, but otherwise I usually do. During the flight I make a point of trying to talk to the person who is in my seat. (That’s always easy because I always reserve aisle seats.) The last person who asked me to swap seats turned out to be Heidi Klug, although I didn’t recognize her until I heard her name.
    If a parent and a child are trying to sit together, I’ll go way out of my way to help, even if it means giving up a premium seat. I’m less sympathetic to couples who want to sit together but I’ll help if I can.

  25. If it is a family I try to be accommodating, as long as I dont have to be in the back of the plane or in some obscure middle seat. I often exchange seats in business/first class on AA flights when there are friends or couples who got upgraded separately and want to seat together, but I do prefer my aisle seat whenever possible. One time, in a Continental Airlines flight from Honolulu to Sydney- this was 1990 in an aging DC 10- I had a window seat and there were three seats in the row before the aisle. Well, there was a mother with an infant and her husband who was quite large, like the type who required a seat belt extension- so my choice was having wife and baby or big husband sitting next to me for a ten hour flight… I chose to move to a different row towards the back of the plane… and in those days it was the smoking section…. so it was not a great flight… I had to deal with some second hand smoke, but at least I had no one else blocking my access to the aisle in a long haul flight.

  26. I have no problem making a swap as long as the seats are equivalent and in a similar location – in my case it’s window-for-window. But I would rather the person sit in their assigned seat first, don’t just plop yourself into someone else’s seat.
    If I’m travelling with someone, we always choose window for me and aisle for them. If it’s a 3-seat row, and we end up with someone between us, so be it. The middle person usually offers to switch (duh!) but we politely decline. If we get separated when booking, we’ll ask to do an aisle-for-aisle swap, if they accept great – if it doesn’t work out, oh well we’ll survive.

  27. On a UA flight in January, another passenger asked if I would move from my Economy Plus seat to a regular one. Since I was at the exit row, an FA was near-by; she heard and told the other person that these seats were (1) reserved for elite passengers or (2) had been paid extra for. She told him he could not have the seat, saving me from having to make a choice. I appreciated her action.

  28. @SQUALO I handle my seats online; it’s others who ask me. There can be countless situations when you can’t manage online.

  29. I am proactive and have employed a “pay it forward approach” and I will ask an obvious couple who are sitting apart if they’d like me to give up my seat so they can sit together. Last time, I gave up a window seat for a middle seat on a 4hr SFO-ORD flight. (My halo is beaming right now). Now, 4hrs was a bit much and I might not do that again and I probably wouldn’t give up a main cabin extra seat for a middle seat farther back. But I’ve been that split apart family member and know that there is a threshold for deciding whether to ask for a swap or not. How nice of a surprise, if it is given to you out of the blue.
    Now, a flight attendant who notices some passenger random act of kindness should offer free drink or other bonus. Maybe the skies would get friendlier.

  30. On Air Canada from CDG -YYZ booked in Business Class flying solo was asked by a kind gentleman if I would mind taking his First class seat so he could sit next to his partner. It worked for both of us. 🙂 🙂

  31. If I am traveling alone, I am generally willing to move to a new seat, as long as it is not some wretched middle seat in the back of the plane.
    I did get a nice reward on a recent flight. Two weeks ago, I was sitting in my (preferred) window seat on a SWA flight as someone was shopping around trying to find a pair of seats together so that he and his new wife could sit together. Eventually the flight attendant came asked me if I would be willing to switch. The only issue was that the gentleman was seated in an exit row, and I have to be willing to remove the door and help out in case of an evacuation. As one might guess, I was quite willing to do so, and I greatly enjoyed the extra room on my LAS-PIT flight.

  32. I’ve soften my stance a little on this as of late due to my own personal experience. Like many of you FTers, I plan my seats well in advance whether traveling alone or with the family. Last summer, our first leg of our PHL to HNL was cancelled inside of 24hrs, not only did I lose my F seats, but we were now looking at being scrambled across the economy cabin. This was not ideal traveling with an 8 and 6 year old. Fortunately, a great agent was able to at least get us a pair of adjoining seats.
    So, for me the moral of the story is that the person who is asking to swap to sit next to their child my be a victim of irrops and not an assumed poor planner.

  33. I have been brusquely instructed by a UA FA to swap a coveted and long assigned window seat for an end of middle row aisle seat to allow a father and young daughter to sit together. I complied, but felt a wee bit cross for a while due to the FA’s attitude and when I realised that he could have taken the seat next to his daughter one in from the aisle. That said, he was very grateful and any residual crossness was with te way I was approached, which still rankles to this day.

  34. My mother asked a fellow passenger and flight attendant to swap seats so she could sit with my niece and nephew flying back from Orlando as the airline separated me, my mother then seated the kids together not far from each other. The passenger swapped with my mother without issue as she was also a grandmother (but her grandkids not with her). The kids slept most of the flight back anyways. I’ve swapped a few times when traveling solo and all those who asked were polite when asking (to sit with family or a friend).

  35. In no most situations, I would not give up my seat as it’s not owed to the entitled people who ask. They are not more important than everyone else, despite their obvious belief contrary. I am frustrated by the people who think “asking politely” somehow makes their behavior acceptable. Unless it is an emergency situation caused through zero fault of their own, like a sick child separated from a parent only because the airlines changed their seating at the last minute (in which case the flight attendant should be handling the situation anyway), then there is no excuse for it. People plan ahead and often pay extra for better or specific seats. It’s obnoxious to try and take that from them. Even politely asking is intrusive and puts the other person in an awkward situation. I don’t want to be put in that situation, say no, and then have some psychopath stare me down for an entire flight. It’s inappropriate force that position in the first place. If people want a specific seat, or if they want to sit with their spouse, they should plan ahead for it like everyone else does. And, it won’t kill them to sit apart from each other, 6 feet away. If it’s that critical for their codependence, plan ahead better and pay up for better seating arrangements, like everyone else. It would not be appropriate for me to walk into a restaurant and “politely ask” the diner next to me for their filet mignon. It would not be appropriate for me to “politely ask” a stranger for keys to their house so I can squat there. It would not be ok to “politely ask” some stranger if I could take their car for a few days. Why would it be ok to intrude on someone similarly, in a plane, in much tighter quarters? That verges on anti-social.

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