For seven years, Tim Roscoe worked as a fund-raiser for the University of Virginia, taking upwards of 20 flights per month to solicit donations from alumni all across the country and world. During that period, he was asked to change seats with a fellow passenger on just 10 occasions. And every time, he said yes, even when it meant sitting in a less desirable middle seat, or in an aisle farther back in the plane.
“It’s not my style to not be accommodating in that sense,” says Roscoe, a 38-year-old Los Angeles native. “When someone asks you [to switch seats], it’s hard to say no. And it was always families or couples asking me because they wanted to sit together.”
And yet, Roscoe says he would “never” make that request of someone else.
This, in a nutshell, perfectly encapsulates the fraught social dynamics of making and fielding a request. A person asked to switch seats often feels obligated to say yes for fear of being rude, even when it means a more unpleasant flying experience.
But making such a request can itself be construed as rude.
On a recent flight, for instance, Recode ecommerce reporter Jason Del Rey announced he had accommodated a woman’s request to switch seats so she could sit next to her husband, only to experience immediate regret. Not only did he give up his aisle seat (his preference) for the woman’s middle seat, the couple didn’t even talk to each other.
The tweet ignited a debate over seat-switching etiquette, with some, such as The New York Times’ Mike Isaac, saying that they would never agree to such a proposal.
The general rule of thumb, according to Leigh Masterson, a Delta flight attendant for 28 years, is that it never hurts to ask someone to switch with you, but it also never hurts to say no. “Sometimes we’re mad that someone put us in a position to do something we don’t want to, such as move seats. But we don’t have to,” Masterson says. “We can always say no. If you say it nice enough, that’s okay.”
Duane Pickering, a 58-year-old flight attendant from Milwaukee, agrees, saying it’s entirely within a passenger’s right to decline an offer. “It’s up to them, really. It’s their seat, they paid for it, and if they don’t want to move, they don’t have to,” he says.
But as Roscoe and Del Rey articulate, there’s still considerable social pressure on the person to say yes. It’s hard to look a person in the eye and tell them no, you will not let them sit next to their loved one or their small child, even if it means wedging into the middle seat, in the back row of the plane, between two meaty dudes who have already established dominion over your armrests.
Not to mention, Masterson says she’s seen some passengers get noticeably angry and start swearing when their request for a seat change is rebuffed. “I’ve had to step in and say, ‘Ma’am that’s their seat, and they don’t have to change,’” she says.
Whether requesting a seat change is appropriate depends on a host of factors, most notably the relative quality of the seats being swapped. It’s always fine to ask if the seats are of “equal desire,” Masterson says, meaning swapping an aisle or a window seat for an aisle or window seat, or a middle seat for a middle seat.
But it can be rude to ask someone to move into your middle seat when they made sure to secure an aisle or window seat. “That’s stepping over the boundaries a little bit,” Pickering says. “I would feel bad moving someone to a middle seat.”
The same applies for asking someone to move into a seat that has less legroom. Many airlines, in fact, offer so-called “premium economy” seats, which afford several additional inches of legroom for those willing to pay more. “A lot of people don’t realize that people pay extra for certain coach seats. It’s not fair to ask someone to switch,” Pickering notes. “If a poor guy is 6-foot-8, I wouldn’t probably put him in that position and ask him to move, and I wouldn’t think the guy to be rude if he declined.”
Another factor to consider is the length of the flight. If it’s a short (about an hour or less), asking someone to switch with you can seem especially fussy.
Perhaps the biggest factor, though, for both parties, is a person’s demeanor when making or responding to a trade request. “Yes, you can always ask that a passenger change, but don’t expect them to,” Masterson says. “Understand that you’re putting them in an awkward situation and act accordingly.”
Passengers should be similarly polite when declining to trade, explaining that they need the extra legroom and are uncomfortable in a middle seat.
There are advantages to switching, though. Both Pickering and Masterson say they like to reward passengers who agree to a switch, as it makes everyone happier and their jobs easier. Masterson will usually slip the passenger a complimentary cocktail, and Pickering will sometimes go as far as upgrading the passenger to business class as a token for their graciousness.
Of course, people could just save everyone the hassle and make sure to book seats next to their loved ones, but inevitably, there are times when that’s not possible. And in that case, the pressure to switch is substantial.
“A lot of people don’t fly very often,” Roscoe says. “So if they’re looking to enhance their experience by sitting with their family or having a window seat, I’d be loath to deny them that.”