What Do You Do About Seat Poachers?

Be sure that you have the proper boarding pass for the proper flight on the proper day — unless you happen to purposely be a seat poacher. Photograph ©istockphoto.com by Ever.

You board the airplane, boarding pass in hand and travel down the aisle to your seat — only to find someone else sitting there. You explain to that person that he or she is sitting in your seat. The person responds to you that he or she wanted to be near a family member, friend, child or spouse.
What do you do?
How about the seat poachers who give lame excuses for settling into your assigned seat, such as “I need to get out to go to restroom frequently so I am taking this seat if you don’t mind” or “My travel agent always books this seat for me. She must have screwed up. Do you mind if I stay here?”
When an airline swaps an airplane for a flight, seat poachers can use the ensuing confusion to take the seats they want — such as in an exit row where there is usually more room for your legs.
FlyerTalk member CopperSteve felt some satisfaction witnessing a flight attendant forcing a seat poacher to move
…but then there are also those seat poachers who are brazen enough to steal seats in the premium class cabin even though they purchased tickets for seats in the economy class cabin, as apparently attempted by this woman.
Just as bad is the seat poacher who parks himself or herself in your seat towards the front of the aircraft, hoping that you automatically will not mind taking his or her middle seat near the lavatory at the rear of the aircraft by the noisy engines.
If someone is already sitting in my assigned seat, I will first check my boarding pass to ensure that I have the correct seat assignment on that flight before I politely ask that person if he or she is certain that he or she is in the correct seat. After all, I have encountered myself and another person in the past having boarding passes with the same seat assignment on the same flight on the same day — albeit rare.
If the person is indeed in the wrong seat, I will politely ask that person to move and give the benefit of the doubt that he or she simply made a mistake. Usually, that person moves and the situation is resolved.
If the person automatically assumed that I would move without even asking me, then all bets are off. In order to justify being that rude, that person had better have a really good reason to convince me to switch my seat — and not to some unwanted seat towards the rear of the aircraft. In this situation, I have no problem denying the request of the seat poacher after the fact — and I will call a flight attendant to resolve the situation, if necessary.
Of course, seat poaching can actually yield a beneficial result — such as in the case of FlyerTalk member robb, who found a man sitting in his assigned seat in the same row as his wife and a lap child whose diaper was being changed in the empty seat between them. With an empty middle seat next to him, robb was happy with his aisle seat amongst the front rows of the economy class cabin.
By the way, I intend to address the diaper changing issue at the seat at a later time. I also intend to address seat requests at a later time as well. This article discusses fellow passengers who have already poached your seat.
What do you do when you find someone already sitting in your assigned seat when you board the aircraft — or have you witnessed someone poaching the seat of someone else? Please share your story.
  1. I have no problem whatsoever asking the person to move and I usually don’t even bother to listen to the excuse. It’s not public transport and I want the seat I paid for. End of story.

  2. I never have, and never will give up my seat to someone who thinks they can just take whatever seat they want if they get to it first. It’s an airplane, not musical chairs.

  3. I always go out of my way to make sure my spouse and I are on the same row. She is window and I’m aisle. Leaving the middle seat. If someone gives me the excuse I polite say my wife is there and I also will like to seat near her too. I hate seat poachers, however, I do not have a problem when someone approaches me after the seating if I can swap with the person, provided is not an incovenience for me. In cases when I do change my seat, I inform the FA, afterall, I’m a elite traveller with AA and want to make sure I get my beanies in coach, the last thing I want is the other traveller enjoying my perks.

  4. The only time I have EVER given up my seat was when I was on a < 3 hour flight with my brother. I was on the aisle and a man was separated from his young son and he wondered if I could swap seats with his kid.
    Me being a father myself, I would have potentially asked the same for the same thing, so I said "no problem" and switched.
    It has to be a REALLY GOOD excuse for me to switch. I usually book an aisle seat months in advance for a reason!

  5. I inadvertently poached the A seat out of habit when I actually had the F. A family of 5 came along and made a federal case about me being in their seat. Seriously? I can see it matters if you are a party of 2 or 3 and BF, CF, or BCF doesn’t work, but what difference does it make to have BCDEF rather than ABCDE? Does your 4 year old REALLY care which side he sits on? Other than being all tucked in and not seeing the point, I had no problem moving as it was just exhausted absent-minded boarding and there was no question I was in the wrong seat. Generally speaking, I too want the seat I bought (or a better one) but this was pretty much the case where it wouldn’t matter at all to me, if the shoe was on the other foot.

  6. really who cares, sometimes u get lucky and get a better seat out of the confusion.
    I always think of all the infrequent flyers who crowd all in one row on an empty plane, fat, stupid, strangers sitting together because that is what the boarding pass says….
    really some people are way to invested in their status on flight for a few hours

  7. I will move if asked nicely and it’s for a reason that I find acceptable (young child separated from parent, for example). I once had someone ASSume that they could take my seat so that he could sit next to his girlfriend (it was two college-aged kids…they both looked like they were in heat). I told the kid that he could have my seat for $100 cash. They both looked kind of stunned…and then he just said, ‘no thanks’, and moved to the aisle behind us, and that was that. But I think I’d employ the ‘pay me cash for my seat’ strategy again; it’s a reasonable request if someone just wants to try and play musical chairs for the heck of it.

  8. So I once had a situation where we had four people assigned to two seats. They were exit row seats and I got there first. I did not move 🙂

  9. Years ago I was flying KLM from Amsterdam to San Francisco. In those days KLM wouldn’t let you reserve your seat in economy in advance–everything was done at the airport. When I checked in, in Berlin, I got an aisle seat, but when I got there, a middle aged man was already in my seat. His two young children were in the seats next to him and he asked if he could change seats with me to sit next to them. Of course he had a middle seat in the row just ahead. The children were maybe 6 and 8, and he could not have avoided this problem by paying a little money to reserve in advance. I immediately realized that, since I didn’t want to be the person who made obviously nervous children sit next to a stranger, I would have to agree. Over the years, many people on hearing this story have stoutly argued that they would never have agreed to sit in the middle seat across the Atlantic, but really what kind of person does that to children?

  10. Once I booked a flight on LH from FRA-ATL at the last minute as had to sit somewhere in the back, middle. I was not looking forward to this flight. I got to my seat and an elderly Gemran man was in my seat, with the FA close by. She asked if I would take his seat, which was towards the front of economy, on a window. SCORE! I prefer window seats.
    After slowly making my way back to the fornt of the cabin there is someone in my nes seat with a legit boarding pass for that seat. I go to the door and tell another FA what has happened. She asks me to wait a minute and I step to the side while she boards a few more PAX.
    She disappears for a minute and the escorts me to my new seat, in J.
    This was the first time I flew in a premium cabin on a long haul flight. Am I glad I did the seat swap! All of that being said. I will consider a seat swap as long as the seat is no worse than the one I selected and the person asking is not acting like a jerk.

  11. I always listen to what the person has to say politely, but have no problem politely but firmly saying no. One thing a law school education is the ability to say “no” politely, but firmly. Further, as some people have pointed out not all seat swaps are bad or are at least comparable. I can tell, you, however that I am more likely to say “yes” to someone who hasn’t resorted in self-help remedies.

  12. I have seen more attempts at poaching a seat in F in the past six months than ever before. Since my two “go to seats ” are 2C/3C I am get asked to switch especially when a couple has been upgraded to separate seats.
    As with the post just before mine I listen look around and politely say that I am a paying FC passenger that prefers this seat. That usually ends it. If there is a comparable isle seat and not bulkhead I will tend to agree.
    Once on a flight to Hawaii I think there was only three of us that paid for and ” reserved” our seats. what a mad house. Tow of us finally said no after an switch then a re switch UGH

  13. Similar situation to ethanwa, has to be a good reason to switch. The only time I had to do this was from BRU->ATL and I was at the bulkhead and a wife and husband were separated, he was in the middle 3 right behind me, she was on the left 2 bulkhead. He also had knee surgery so he needed the extra room, so I let them sit next to each other in the middle bulkhead area. I ended up getting the left bulkhead area anyway, so it was still a win.

  14. My wife and me was almost late for our flight to Spain as my connection was late. However we just made it and boarded to find my wifes seat taken. He had the same seat assignment she had so asked to see the flight attendant. She tried to give different seats in the middle section which I refused. I then asked to see the captain and all of a sudden she said we could seat there. Find out the man was the attendants boyfriend flying with her to Spain.

  15. It totally depends on the circumstances.
    When I’m not traveling for business, I’m traveling with my wife and daughters (4 and 1.5 — the younger one traveling as a lap child). For leisure we book enough in advance to choose seats together, but irrops and aircraft swaps can change all that. If there’s a problem, we sit in our assigned seats and THEN ask if we can switch to fix the separation — but only if it’s a comparable or better seat. We are happy to trade one of our seats down (e.g. aisle given for middle received, or E+ given for non-E+ received, etc.) to ensure my 4 year old is next to at least one of us. After all, the people with whom we’re trading are doing us a favor.
    The exception is on RJs. Almost always when boarding with a lap child, the flight attendant will tell us to sit in a particular row because there are only certain rows with the extra infant oxygen mask available, and just ask whoever is assigned in that row to move to the row where we were supposed to sit (generally further forward than where the FA moves us to). We would be happy to book the appropriate row when purchasing, but it’s different on different RJs, and it’s never specified on the Web site which RJ rows can accommodate lap children. But since pretty much all the seats on RJs without F are similar (obviously not counting the exit rows either, since we can’t sit there with the children), it’s rarely been a problem.

  16. The issue isn’t about asking me to move, it’s about poaching. I.e. you assume I am going to say yes before you even ask, and therefore sit in my seat. Next time this happens, probably likely to oblige but will point out that they didn’t ask before hand.

  17. A trans-pacific flight I was asked to give up my isle seat for a middle seat, I declined, which generated a flood of tears from this young lady, bordering on hysteria. How was I to know it was her wedding day, and they were on their honey moon and almost missed the plane, forgot some luggage. As it turned out, looks like it was all my fault. I was socially barred from anymore consideration, while a flight attendant moved six people in what I would call one of the greatest examples of diplomacy I have ever seen. Bride was finally sitting next to her new husband for the next ten hours or so. In a way, I felt sorry for him. It was probably the last chance he will ever have for some peace and quiet.

  18. No. My answer is always no. I MAY switch if requested AND I am getting a better seat out of the deal.
    However, I don’t care what the poacher’s problem is. Whatever it is, it isn’t MY problem, and should not be made into MY problem.
    Separated adults? Nope. Didn’t like their assigned seat? Nope. Need to get out frequently? Me too..and I have the seat. Nope. Separated from children? Probably NOPE. Get the FA to get someone else to switch.
    Don’t worry about looking like a jerk. You are not a jerk for standing up for what is rightfully yours, and it doesn’t matter what the other pax think. You will never see those people again. If someone starts scolding you, make the scolder put their money where their mouth is and THEY can give up their seat instead.
    Never offer excuses. It only leaves the poacher room to argue. If they don’t move, get the FA involved. If the FA won’t take your side, ask for a purser or GA.
    The fact is, it is a war out there. It is a war for the edge to get the most comfortable seat and that comes through planning and earning the right. Foresight. Experience. You won that seat, and they simply covet what you worked/paid extra for. Their sense of entitlement is grossly inflated and they need to be held accountable for simply trying to squat in your seat.

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