If you’re in the aisle seat, is it fair game to go to sleep?

And if you’re not in the aisle seat — and you have to use the lavatory — do you wake the person sitting next to you in order to get up and go, or do you hold it?

Does it depend on how long the flight is?

I just got off of a fairly short flight, I was upgraded — best I can tell the only passenger with a complimentary upgrade on the flight — and wound up in a middle seat. And I had to use the facilities.

The man sitting next to me in the aisle sleep was dozing off. I had a real conundrum.

  • It was only a 90 minute flight, so it’s not unreasonable for me to wait.
  • But it was an international flight. Into the pit that is Miami. I was going to want to get off of that flight as quickly as possible (the customs queues were long for everyone even Global Entry tonight). Not having to make a stop enroute would be critical.

I noodled on this and decided that taking the aisle seat means you control your own destiny, but it comes with the inherent risk that you’re going to have to accommodate the passenger next to you. But I still didn’t wake him.

See, it turns out that I was sitting next to the Senior Vice President of a Very. Large. Cruse Line.

And I book frequent flyer award tickets. Frequently for cruise passengers. And I would like it very much if this cruise line would recommend my service when they have passengers who would like to decline air and use their miles but are frustrated in trying to do so. (Cruise lines frequently subsidize the air they’re offering to get the sale of the cruise.)

So even though I felt that I had a strong moral case to wake him to use the lavatory, I decided I had a poor business case for doing so. So I waited. I cleared immigration and customs, headed to the lounge, got myself on standby for an earlier flight into a different airport. And then used the facilities.

Would you have handled it any differently?

Does the aisle seat passenger have an obligation to be accommodating to those in the window (or middle) that need to get out? Is it ok to wake the person in the aisle? What would you have done?

  1. Daniel Schwarz said,

    Well, I am waiting as long as I can in this situation – this the hope that my aisle neighbor will go to the lavatories once too. And then I just use this option.

    But if I know it’s an oversea night flight and the cabin is cleared after dinner for sleeping I don’t mind to go immediately to give us both a longer sleep.

    And yes aisle seated people are aware of it and have to leave the others out. However they can expect that they will return as fast as possible for stay out longer – esp. when everybody wants to sleep.

  2. Jason said,

    I’d wake him up. See the third column of this WSJ infographic: http://si.wsj.net/public/resources/images/PJ-AZ932B_MIDSE_G_20110316215304.jpg

  3. Paul Robichaux said,

    If you take the aisle seat, you are obligated to cheerfully get up to let your seat opponents in and out, as much as they need to– if you’re awake! I’m not sure where I come down on the sleep question; I hate being awakened but I also hate having to wait until naptime is over to use the restroom. I wouldn’t wake up the aisle sitter unless it was an emergency, and if my seat opponent woke me up, I’d probably let it pass.

  4. Sonja said,

    I would wake the person. And I also would not be offended if I was the aisle person and someone woke me.

  5. colleen said,

    +1 @Sonja. Maybe it’s just a girl thing … we’re more accustomed to and empathetic toward restroom issues. No offense meant, guys. ;)

  6. Andrew said,

    I don’t think the rights/responsibilities of either the window, middle, or aisle person should be different in terms of going to the bathroom. If someone needs to use the restroom, let them out, or politely ask to be let out.

    You don’t always have control over where you’re sitting, and we’re all going to be in all of those positions at some point while flying, so let’s all be on the same page.

  7. Total said,

    Dude, really? Next post is on whether you hang left or right?

  8. Chris said,

    I think you should be reasonable, and not go to the restroom five times. But waking someone up once during the flight because you have to use the restroom is very reasonable. There are a lot of benefits to aisle seats, but you have to accept that you’ll have to get up occasionally to let people out.

  9. Steve said,

    If I’m in the aisle I usually tell my neighbor(s) to feel free to wake me up if they need to get out. I’ve been in the trapped situation you were in and try to not make others feel the same way. It’s easy enough to alleviate the concern and put the other person at ease from the start.

  10. Patrick said,

    Good God! When did common sense cease to rule the planet? If you’re in a coach aisle seat, your piss is the very same color and in the very same volume as the rest of humanity. If you don’t understand that, you deserve a rude awakening.

  11. Bill N DC said,

    I agree with Sonja. And as a window seater in front or aisle in back I do both. Thanks aisle folks up front! :-)

  12. JBG said,

    What if the person in the middle or window has been drinking (and you know they have) and they need to “break the seal”? And once it’s “broken” you know they will probably need to go again. I’ve been on both sides. Annoying when you’re the aisle seat (on the bad end of the deal) but the other side is…deserved if you drank enough to warrant extra bathroom visits on a plane. I always pick a window seat when I can for this reason alone. And if I have that seat I plan my pre-flight accordingly as to not bother the others in my row.

  13. James Horne said,

    To pee or not to pee. That is the question.

  14. Chris M. said,

    Don’t fly in economy. Ever.

  15. Dan99 said,

    I think it’s always a good idea to take care of business long before the approach. There may be turbulence, and it seems that pilots like to use that as an excuse to turn on the seat belt sign early and then just leave it on. Also, you may have to circle or divert. The wait may be much longer than you think.

  16. MileageUpdate said,

    I once had an attractive mid 20’s woman climb both over the middle seat guy and me in the aisle seat w/o asking 1st to go to the bathroom. It was a full contact encounter for sure.

  17. MidCentModFan said,

    I wouldn’t do business with someone who held a grudge because I asked them to move so I could use the facilities. Even though you decided not to disturb his slumber, if he’s as cantankerous as you assume him to possibly be, he’ll eventually. find another way to punish you.

  18. Joel said,

    It’s good to stay hydrated while flying, so I drink a lot of water. A simple ‘click’ of the seat belt often gets their attention, and if not, a tap on the shoulder with a polite request to get through to use the loo.

  19. Suzy said,

    Yes, the aisle seat passenger has an obligation to be accommodating. I would first attempt to carefully climb over the aisle passenger without awakening him/her. I would not wait as the above poster mentions you might not get the chance if you hit some turbulence. And I agree, the gals are more sensitive to restroom issues.

  20. Swag said,

    “So I waited. I cleared immigration and customs, headed to the lounge, got myself on standby for an earlier flight into a different airport. And then used the facilities.”

    If you made it through all that, obviously you didn’t have to go that badly.

    What airline flies short haul into MIA where premium cabins have middle seats?

  21. mike said,

    That is why I always get a window seat. Hate the aisle seat because of this and everyone hitting my shoulders as they walk down the aisle. I sleep about 75% of the time I am on a plane…sometimes fall asleep before we leave the gate and don’t wake until we land.

    NOTE: If I have to go I go. Doesn’t matter if the people next to me are asleep.

  22. beachfan said,

    Absent the business angle, it’s a no-brainer in my book. Based on years of experience.

    If you wait until you can’t hold it anymore, you will find your willpower tested to the max as Murphy’s law will ensure that there is a line for the lav.

    As a 95% aisle seat guy, I know it’s my responsibility to get up. And when I get up for my own purposes, I often find my seatmates use that occassion to get up.

    I also know it’s healthier to get up on long flights.

    I know it is unhealthy to hold it in too long (I’ve gotten kidney pains on occassion when stuck on I95 from Boca to Miami for 90+minutes.

    I find it rude when someone (a stranger) climbs over me without giving me the chance to get up.

    Having to go “all that badly” is a nonstarter in my book. I think it’s fair to say that for the vast majority of us, we go when we need to, not for fun.

  23. kam said,

    I always take the aisle seat (even if I have to pay extra) and I don’t mind if people wake me up to go to the restroom. What I hated on the last flight was this little kid sitting in the middle seat wanting to move out every 20 mins while his mom was fast asleep at the window seat. I let him go the first 3-4 times before I woke up his mom and told her to handle the kid and see what his issue was in going every 20 mins.

  24. Mrredskin said,

    You couldn’t have had to go THAT bad if u cleared customs and went to a lounge before doing your business

  25. Perryplatypus said,

    Didn’t mommy teach you to drain the lizard before you get on a flight? Just kidding :) I always try to book the isle and I’m never personally bothered when I have to get up to let someone use the rest room. When you gotta go you gotta go!

  26. Scott said,

    On short flights, you got to cross your legs and hold it. Should have peed before you boarded.

  27. Ryan E said,

    @MileageUpdate: I wouldn’t mind having a passenger such as that lady climb over me!

    I see nothing impolite or wrong about politely asking the aisle person to allow you to use the lav – whether they’re a bigshot or not. I always prefer the aisle seat and I don’t mind, whether I’m asleep or not – one of the trade-offs of sitting there.

  28. tivoboy said,

    Dude, after nearly 3.5 MM miles I have learned the art of the over the top pivot over a person in the aisle seat. Learn it.

  29. Carl said,

    Like Steve, i usually tell my neighbors to wake me if they need to get up. Its not like it is my private jet.

  30. chemist661 said,

    Some people may have medical needs to use the bathroom more than usual. They may not have drank too much liquids. That was the reason I always try to get the aisle seat. Having status helps in getting seat preferences.

    I am grounded due to medical issues but I have to go to the bathroom more than usual. I always let my seat mates know that is OK to wake me up to use the bathroom. (I usually sit in aisle seats). Communication goes a long ways!!

  31. Patrick said,

    I truly can’t believe that this post is generating 27 (and probably more) replies, including 2 of mine. I think Gary may have planted it as a joke, seeing how much idiocy people could be sucked into mulling over. Good night!

  32. MileageUpdate said,

    TivoBoy – LOL hey do you stick the landing?

  33. Hobo13 said,

    I assume you didn’t mention the name of your blog….

  34. James said,

    You sit in the aisle seat, you’ve got no right to complain when people ask to get up. Period.

  35. BFrankley said,

    One of the only good things about being a tall flyer – there’s no one I can’t climb over. So my large bladder and I sit at the window and climb quietly over anyone at anytime. If you choose the aisle, you deserve to be woken repeatedly.

  36. matt said,

    I think the first comment is the correct one. There is an etiquette for night flights of attempting to go after the meal, before the person on the aisle goes to bed. If I’m inside, I will always do so, and greatly appreciate it when others do as well for me.

    For domestic it’s tougher, but I try not to wake the aisle sleeper unless it’s an emergency.

  37. Scott said,

    Ditto on never fly coach — or a higher class on an airline that still has the aisle/window distinction. Barbaric.

  38. RomsdeAls said,

    You guys all have first world problems. Just chill out and let people go to the bathroom hah!

  39. steve said,

    Just go the bathroom.

    If someone is so bothered by it, they have serious issues.

    Pretty much standard etiquette for me on a plane (/life) is: if someone is polite, considerate, not a jerk, then if they make any sort of reasonable request (seat switch, etc., etc.), I’ll accommodate.

    Why? Because I’m not so effin’ important. We’ve all gotta work together, being human ‘n all.

  40. mark said,

    Did Lucky hijack your blog?

  41. deltaplat said,

    I don’t really understand why getting up to let someone go to the lavatory would bother someone. Even if it is five times. Who cares? I would rather let someone up than to have to talk with them for hours!

  42. Bill said,

    On a scale of one to ten, urinate.

  43. Kid said,

    Was it #1 or #2?

  44. Steven S said,

    I prefer the aisle and understand if someone has to wake me. But if it happens more than once with the same person, and if I’m trying to sleep and not having bladder issues, I’ll suggest we change seats.

  45. The Guy said,

    It is a terrible conundrum for us frequent fliers who face this constant dilemma. I think in my situation I would have gone straight after getting off the plane rather than go through passport control first. You can only hold it for so long!

  46. Andrew S said,

    I don’t mind getting up, but what P.O.s me more is an able-bodied person behind me yanking back my seat when trying to get out. Use your own row for balance, and do what the flight attendants do walking down the aisle, use the overhead bins to keep you upright! Old people and midgets excluded, of course :)

  47. Rolling Ze Dice said,

    If I’m in the aisle, I’m not going to feel an obligation not to snooze, but I’m also not going to feel bad waking up an aisle person.

    Moreover, aisle-sitters tend to be kinda rude in my experience. Recently on a flight, my wife and I, due to United’s mistake, had been booked in the middle seat in two consecutive rows. I asked if any of the two aisle people would be willing to switch so I could sit by my wife, and they weren’t even remotely compassionate in telling me “no.” I suppose I should blame the airlines for turning fellow air travelers into heartless savages.

  48. Alan said,

    You were too nice. Aisle sitters know the deal, particularly up front, and particularly if they chose the seat.

    Btw, I typically use this experience to practice my yoga and hurdler’s stretch. I rarely wake anyone.

  49. Andyandy said,

    This is an interesting economics conundrum, given that both parties costs rise with increased flight duration. On shorter flights, the sleeper is not likely to lose much by being awakened. Nor is the holder likely to suffer overlong. But as the flight time increases, the sleeper loses out on a beneficial amount of sleep and the holder is less likely to be able to hold it. Given that the cost to the holder could be catastrophic (with attendant costs to the sleeper), I’m pretty sure I side with the holder in all reasonable scenarios.

  50. mikeef said,

    Trust me when I say the cruise line needs you more than you need them. They do not, under any circumstances, want to cause distress to somebody who writes a travel blog. Just trust me on this one.

    Gary, if you know the person’s name, could you PM me, either at my email address or on MP (mikeef)? Thanks.

  51. ian said,

    Still trying to figure out how you were in a middle seat after being upgraded, and somehow only had access to one aisle?

  52. oneeyejack said,

    when you gotta go, you GOTTA GO! wake them up. if you don’t then you suffer your own consequences.

  53. AussieOzzie said,

    Yep Gary you’re correct… this conundrum does have two components (no pun intended) #1) a more liquid asset Moral component and #2) a more solid Business Financial component – both of which should have been tested with a precise Cost Benefit Analysis to calculate a nominal Risk Reward Ratio such that you could determine the exact Stop Loss Threshold for waking your seatmate thus allowing you to create an effective Exit Strategy which would grant you safe passage to the nearest lavatory. Did you run the numbers?

    Oh what the heck… Push the Flight Attendant Call button and have them do the dirty work of waking up Mr. SVP aisle seat sleeper with some phony ruse. Works every time!

  54. Ajay said,

    Of course if it was Ryanair, I could see the Aisle seat person also wanting to charge a buck, as he/she is being as much inconvenienced by your need to go as the airline is :-)

    Or you could offer to subsidize his/her visit to the facilities:-)

    Jokes apart, I remember the days when flights in and out of DC had a 30 min rule of not getting up. I used to fly Continental from Cleveland to Reagan and the flight attendant used to announce that they will delay pushback from the gate in Cleveland till all passengers needing to use the facilities had done so! (As by the time the flight reached cruising altitude it was within 30 min of DC)

  55. Jim L said,

    I fly mostly TATL or TPAC and always sit on the aisle. I tell the person next to me that I got the seat I wanted and if they needed to get up, just wake me. It is always appreciated. However, I did have one woman climb over and back using the armrests and I never knew a thing about it (until she told me later). Impressive.

  56. Robert Hanson said,

    @Rolling Ze Dice I always try to fly AA where my hard won Lifetime Gold allows me to pick the better seats at time of booking. Since all of my travel is voluntary leisure, I will not book a flight where I cannot avoid a middle seat. Even if that means I cannot go somewhere I otherwise wanted to go. If I need to fly Southwest, I will pay the extra fee for early boarding to avoid a middle seat.

    So when you and your wife did not do what I did to even get seats together, and are both in those miserable middle seats, and ask me to give up the seat I went out of my way to make sure I had… NO, I will not suffer in a middle seat just so the two of you can chitchat for a few hours.

    If you are upset that I will not give you my seat, just because you prefer it to the one you ended up with by not going the extra mile as I did, you are the one who is being rude. BTW, your standard for labeling someone a “heartless savage” is silly. That term is appropriate for maximum security prisoners and drug gang members. Using it in this context just degrades the language.

  57. Joediver said,

    Hey Gary, what were you upgraded to if you had a middle seat?

  58. Orange said,

    Last night, I was in United Economy flying back from Frankfurt. The woman in the aisle seat was awake but would not get up to let my wife or me in or out of our seats to use the lavatory. Instead, she angled her legs to the side as if in the middle of a theater and told us to slide by her. Of course, the people in the row in front of us had their seats all the way back, so it was next to impossible. I thought it was incredibly rude.

  59. Martintot said,

    Gary, you are my hero! “So I waited. I cleared immigration and customs, headed to the lounge, got myself on standby for an earlier flight into a different airport. And then used the facilities.”

    Most of us over sixty years of age do not have to ponder the question of should or should I not disturb the aisle seat passenger. When there is a need, it can be urgent and waiting is not an option.

    As a frequent international flyer, I am always in an aisle seat and happy to permit my seat neighbor to exit as needed.

  60. Gary said,

    So maybe I caused some confusion in the way I described the flight. I was being generic in talking about aisle seat vs window or middle and access to the lavatory — not meaning to say I was upgraded but the row had a middle seat. Sorry for the confusion. I was upgraded and had a window seat, there was no middle on the flight.

  61. Pete Freans said,

    No way, kidneys, bladders and colons come first…quite frankly, I wouldn’t care if the pope was sitting next to me, although he probably would be much more understanding.

  62. Christine said,

    I had an unexpected “calling” after eating that creepy brown chicken on an international flight. I had a window seat. I stood up on the seat, stepped on the middle arm rest, the aisle arm rest, and was in the aisle in no time and the guy never woke up. Getting back to my seat was a little more complicated as I had to wake him up.

  63. Crissy said,

    On a short flight like that, unless you really have to go, I would say wait until you’re off the flight or the person seems to have woken up. On a long flight, all bets are off.

  64. Norma said,

    I’d wake them as I would expect them to wake me if the situation was reversed.

  65. Marc said,

    I always enjoy being a pain in the ass and forcing the aisle kings to allow me to use the toilet. I especially enjoy waking them up….Haha

  66. UAPhil said,

    The solution is to take an aisle seat next to an athletic passenger who can hop over you without waking you up. (Yes, this has happened to me. :-)

  67. Enjoying a Special Rate at the Ritz-Carlton Grand Cayman - View from the Wing said,

    […] Lots of folks from my conference taking up the seats, and I wound up sitting next to the Senior Vice President of a top cruise line. […]

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