Can You Change to an Open, Empty Seat on a Plane? It Depends on the Airline

United, American, and Southwest take very different approaches to passengers changing seats. On Southwest their boarding process makes it a free for all. American flight attendants are Switzerland.
And United’s are the tax man.

When passengers try to change seats on United, the airline’s flight attendants stand on the bridge between seats declaring “none shall pass.” It used to be that passengers could change to any empty seat in the cabin, but now the airline charges extra for some seats in economy and flight attendants are the airline’s revenue protection force.

Over the summer I was on a flight that delayed because the last passenger to board wanted to change seats from 24D to the empty 7C in coach. A flight attendant quoted him $63. He initially said he’d pay but then changed his mind.

One flight attendant said to another, “When I go to the car lot to buy and buy a Honda I don’t drive off in a Mercedes just because it was there.” She congratulated herself to her colleague on the analogy, although she may have been the first person ever to compare United Economy Plus to a Mercedes.

United reportedly wouldn’t let a child stretch out in an empty seat. A honeymoon couple was removed from a flight when they tried to move to empty exit row seats.

Southwest Airlines doesn’t have assigned seats, and they have only one cabin. Some seats are better than others. You’d think that you would need to board super early to get the best seats but most passengers fill up the front of the aircraft first. I find that boarding around 50th, maybe just in the top third, I can get an exit row aisle and since it’s farther back in the aircraft there’s a good shot the middle seat stays empty.

Some passengers save seats for others who are boarding later. And Southwest doesn’t have an official policy on this one way or another. It’s really Lord of the Flies, every passenger for themselves, flight attendants won’t intervene. Or when passengers put fake crumpled up tissues on the middle seat so no one will sit there.

American Airlines doesn’t intervene in seating choices either, even though they charge for ‘preferred’ coach seats without extra legroom and of course for extra legroom coach seats.

American’s approach, which matches my observations, was explained on Twitter by JonNYC:

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. what part of “you GET What You Pay for “ is so hard for People to Comprehend? Way too many Self Entitled idiots Out there. I Like the UAL approach….. and If it doesn’t work, Beat Them!

  2. I’m totally behind the United approach especially with the proliferation of basic economy. Flight attendants should either enforce seating assignments or people who paid for specific seats should get their money back if a plane goes out with empties and people move around.

  3. @reece~ you really must get that ‘caps lock’ key on your keyboard seen to. it’s becoming annoying.

  4. As a UA Gold, I’m thankful that they keep the riff raff from self upgrading themselves to the empty seats next to me. Although unless I’m on a domestic twin aisle, even Economy Plus seats inevitably get occupied by crew members flying nonrev. Thankfully they have excellent standards of conduct and courtesy for employees flying nonrev compared to your non elite self upgrader.

  5. I appreciate United preventing people from self-upgrading to bulkhead or extra legroom seats, especially on the 15+ hour flights I usually take. An empty middle seat makes all the difference in those long flights. I once had a very nice lady sit next to me who refused to move (the seat map showed an empty seat). I actually got up and informed the FA, who made her move. Felt terrible but a little extra space makes a huge difference to comfort.

  6. Whoa, talk about entitled!
    #1. Try and find an empty seat!
    #2. No, I often do not get what I pay for. Struggle as I might, it is often damn near impossible to get a pre-assigned seat before departure. Airlines do not make seating charts available, place restrictions on choices and do not sell extra legroom seats before narrowly defined time limits. Airlines play bait-and-switch with different planes so often I get assigned seats assigned by number on a different plane assigned by numbers, but are exactly what I do not want.,
    #3. I’ve cut my flying by 90% because it has become so miserable. Bye-bye any “status.” Is status considered among “what you pay for?” Not on a particular flight, I contend. Now that is “entitlement” in my book.
    #4. Most of what previous commenters are talking about is self-upgrading. I can see restrictions on that. Frankly, I think those have always been in force, have they not? But, why not move from an agony coach middle seat to an available aisle seat in the same class of service? I’m not talking about exit-row, or premium-economy, or, heaven forbid, interfering with the Gold, Anointed, Better-than-thou, Chosen, Advanced-Smugness, I’m-not-riff-raff crowd.
    #5. My next BA Business Class flight I am being charged $130US to choose a seat on a 747 before a week in advance of departure (mid-February.) Even now I have the choice of one window seat. I change flights in LHR (always a treat) and have been asked to pay another $130 for another flight onward, five hours to the Middle East. Too often on BA I get those nasty middle-seat-blocked, too-small-to-begin-with seats designated “Business Class.”
    Uhhhh, no! I do not get what I pay for.

  7. I love the “people watching” while boarding WN. Since I won”t give them the extra $15 early check in fee, I try to check in at the 24-hour mark. That puts me at the end of A or beginning of B. I see A LOT of different techniques to try to discourage other pax from sitting next to them. My favorite is the surgical mask. This is also one of the few times in America that’s it’s an advantage to be a young black male in a hoodie. Those are ALWAYS the last seats to be filled. And I’ve even seen the young black males game the system and try to look more intimidating and unfriendly during the boarding process!

  8. Southwest’s policy is a disaster for children. Parents have to hope for adjoining seats. I can already hear the response… Just buy priority boarding… Doesn’t always work if you are connecting or arrive late due to TSA lines. But that’s okay Southwest, we have JetBlue now and other airlines to pick from.
    I’m surprised at the universal support for UA policy. As long as FA has discretion over reseating, that is probably the best policy.
    For the most part, air travel is like a fast bus ride with long stops. It is a seat that you use for 2 to 4 hours, and not much more than that in coach. If you are lucky, you get an armrest, maybe two.

  9. An empty seat? On AA the empty seat has gone the way of the dinosaur. On a recent flight, a woman took a Aisle MCE seat, and loudly and repeatedly bragged about not having to pay extra.

  10. United: I agree with those that agree with United. We pay extra for certain rows, certain seats so why should someone else get something for free? Just because they make a scene? Dig down deep and spend a few extra $ and avoid the hassle already or don’t fly. It’s your choice. Here’s the rules, your choice what to do.

  11. Sigh, one more person buys into the great airline rip-off. Been listening a lot to Big Brother, Shirley?

    Who — anywhere through this whole thread — has said anything about more expensive seats? Only different seats.

    Would you be so shrill if some guy moved into a middle seat to have dad time with his sulking 14 year old son or to comfort his wife? Or shifted from one aisle seat to another to relieve a throbbing left leg?

    Try, folks, to be as kind, tolerant and generous of spirit as you possibly can be.

    Even if I am drinking champagne in first class, I am forced to put up with fights, arguments, discourtesy, hostility and meanness people set in motion.

    The airlines have contributed significantly to “class” distinctions and making dollar amounts count as social-class markers here in the land of equality.

    And sometimes babies cry or old people moan whether I like it or not.

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