Who Knew? You Can Buy an Empty Middle Seat For More Space on All the Big US Airlines

There are plenty of reasons that people buy more than one seat on an airplane. Eighteen years ago someone bought a first class seat for a pig on US Airways. Much more commonly though,

Writer/director Kevin Smith recently lost 43 pounds after a health scare. But back in 2010 he was refused travel on Southwest because he didn’t fit in a seat. He had purchased two seats for himself, but wanted to move to an earlier flight where only one seat was available. He went on a tirade against the carrier but ended his boycott of Southwest six years later.

I understood the rules and procedures for an instrument, but not for passengers of size. When do can they buy an extra seat, and when do they have to?

I reached out to the major US airlines to find out how this works, and realized in the process that most anyone can buy an extra seat just because they want more room. And sometimes it can be a bargain. In some cases even free.

Southwest May Even Refund Your Extra Seat Cost

Southwest publishes extensive details on their policy on its website. Southwest’s policy is also probably the best well known — customers of size are asked to buy a second ticket, but if the plane doesn’t go out full they refund the cost of that second seat. This is important, keep this in your back pocket for a moment.

Southwest shares,

We’ve actually had a policy on the books for more than 20 years, but it has evolved over time. The current policy was designed to make sure we can accommodate the needs of the Customer and ensure their safety and comfortability—and not penalize them for buying a second seat—while also ensuring the safety and comfortability of all of our Customers.

The reason we ask them to buy the second seat is to remove it from inventory and ensure it will be available to them. We refund it 100 percent of the time upon request, and most of our Customers know the drill and really like the policy.

In the event of an oversell, we will accommodate on a first come, first serve basis—just as we do with all Customers checking in. So if the Customer with an extra seat is onboard and seated, we will not remove them—and we would apply our denied boarding policy to the last person to board—as we normally would.

You don’t need to be as large as you think to take advantage of this policy, in fact Southwest says “Customers who encroach upon any part of the neighboring seat(s) may proactively purchase the needed number of seats prior to travel in order to ensure the additional seat(s) is available. ”

Gosh in coach who doesn’t encroach upon any part of the neighboring seat” especially when stretching out? And you can buy yourself a second seat online. Just book an extra passenger with your same name and middle name ‘XS’ for Extra Seat. (If you’re buying yourself a Business Select or Anytime Fare you can buy a discounted Child’s fare by phone for the second seat.)

You can check in online but you still need to see an agent at the gate. Southwest doesn’t have pre-assigned seats. But they’ll give you a ‘Seat Reserved’ sign to place on the seat next to you, and paperwork for the second seat refund provided the flight isn’t full.

What’s more the ‘Extra Seat Boarding document’ also allows you to preboard to get early choice of seats.

Gosh I’m thinking when flights are around $100 DC – Austin non-stop I really might buy myself a second seat. Or when those Austin – Denver fares are running $53, I have to think an extra seat might be worth rolling the dice on an extra $53 which essentially comes with early boarding (saving $15 early bird check-in) along with the chance of getting the whole amount back!

United Makes You Scan Both Boarding Passes

United tells me customers are required to purchase an extra seat “if a customer cannot fit safely seat belted into a seat using one seat belt extension.” However there’s no rule against anyone purchasing a second seat. They go even further, saying explicitly “in fact there are often customers who do not necessarily need the extra seat who may choose to book it just to make sure they have an empty seat next to them on board.”

When you book two seats for yourself you get 2 boarding passes. The two boarding passes, both scanned, are what prevent them from giving away the second seat (this way they don’t mark the second seat a no show, cancelling second seat for onward segments as well).

Both seats are booked with the passenger’s last name. Reservations agents are trained to book the second ticket with the first name “EXTRASEAT.”

Buying two tickets get double the luggage allowance. You’re also entitled to extra base redeemable miles for the second ticket, but not for elite qualifying miles or elite redeemable miles bonuses. Change fees apply to both your seat and your extra seat.

You can book a basic economy ticket if you wish, and then “purchase the option of selecting a seat assignment in advance to make sure that both of their seats are together.”

Delta Warns Against Booking Basic Economy

Delta doesn’t have a requirement for passengers of size to book two seats. But it’s an option. Delta tells me they “ensure[..] the additional seat is entered in the passenger record, which is visible at the gate so the agent can ensure the seat isn’t assigned to another customer.”

The customer just scans one ticket at boarding, but their system keeps the second seat blocked so that it isn’t given away to a standby customer.

If you want an additional ticket you’re advised to do this by calling Delta reservations. You can do this after booking your ticket online, but make sure that there’s a second seat available next to you on the seat map.

Delta advises against booking Basic Economy tickets when you want a second seat, since those fares don’t allow you to select seats at the time of booking and therefore you cannot assign two seats together. While that’s the official line I understand that Delta reservations agents can override the restriction when someone is trying to buy two tickets together for extra room, whether you find one who will is an open question.

American

American tells me their policy to require passengers of size to buy an extra ticket is as follows,

To ensure the comfort and safety of all customers, our policy is that an extra seat will be required at the time of booking if the customer requires a seat belt extension and their body extends more than one inch beyond the outermost edge of the armrest.

The process is to book the extra seat by calling American’s reservations. They’ll documented that the have an extra seat.

Reservations books it as a new reservation with the last name of the customer and EXST as the first name. Our team also adds a SEAT ticket designator to the EXST ticket which exempts the taxes. The airport will then be able to see the name of the passenger + the extra seat during the boarding process.

American says it’s possible to do this even on a Basic Economy ticket, even though those don’t usually get to pre-assign seats before check-in free.

For a BE ticket + extra BE ticket, our resolution desk would get involved and assign those two seats together in advance.

No one was aware of any restrictions on who was allowed to do this. A pretty good deal Miami – Houston for $53, especially since it comes with a seat assignment.

Is Buying an Empty Middle Seat the Best Travel Deal Ever?

I’ve always wondered how it worked logistically when you bought a second seat. Each airline is different. You actually need to scan a second boarding pass at United. You don’t with Delta. But each airline has procedures to ensure you get the second seat next to you, even Southwest (boarding card to place on the seat) which doesn’t have pre-assigned seats.

What I never really considered was the option to buy the second seat — that this isn’t just an option for passengers that are really large, but anyone can do it. With ultra cheap Basic Economy fares it might make sense. With Southwest where there can be the option of getting the second seat refunded it’s not just more space but a Las Vegas element added in, that could be fun.

The single most important factor in whether or not you have a good flight is having an empty seat next to you. The food or snacks seem better. Flight attendants seem friendlier. It’s less stressful overall. So regardless of your size, if you feel more comfortable buying extra space, it’s something to consider especially when the price is right. Airlines don’t just sell extra legroom seats — who knew they sell extra width too?

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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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Comments

  1. You should delete this post. It’s more than just clickbait it’s filled with incorrect info. Assuming you aren’t seat belt extender needing fat, go book a few double tickets on WN and tell me how it works out for you on flights that are full or just nearly full. There is plenty of data on this from others. You’d think airlines would gladly sell double tickets to skinny people (talk about fuel savings) but it’s not that simple and you may get bounced from the flight or at least publicly humiliated by GA’s and FA’s.

  2. Been doing this for years with all the carriers ! I like having the extra room! Plenty of times flights were full and the space was so worth it.

  3. In early 2002 I was on a South African Airways flight from Johannesburg to JFK. Flight attendants counted the passengers in their seats, but when comparing to people who had scanned their boarding passes, we were one person short. After a 45 minute delay, they realized one person bought two coach seats to have an empty seat for 14 1/2 hours. Problem solved!

  4. We have booked an extra seat on Delta many times. My dad has an emotional support dog and he wants to ensure sufficient floor space for the dog.

  5. Hi Gary, I often buy an extra seat both in coach (intra-europe carriers sometimes only have coach) and ‘first’ on American domestic. I’m not large at all, I do it to keep extra large people from sitting next to me and encroaching on my seat. I had very negative experiences in coach with extremely (seriously) large people pushed up against me, and then recently a MAGA wearing gentleman in first who said some extremely offensive racist things to me. So I decided to sit alone whenever realistically possible. It’s easy to book 2 seats, the hardest part is making a flight change. Doing it direct through American results in very long phone calls, and doing it through Chase Travel (I like to book using their points at 1.5 cents each) is truly a nightmare. American will often charge just 1 change fee but Chase Travel will argue and fight to charge $400 in change fees.

    I also have learned to warn the flight crew or they’ll try to move someone up into my extra seat.

    Currently I have a separate FF account for my extra seat, American hasn’t seemed to care yet – is that something I should be concerned with?

  6. @8bb8b8 – I quoted official policy from each airline, and got the operational details from their spokespeople. Southwest says “Customers who encroach upon any part of the neighboring seat(s) may proactively purchase the needed number of seats prior to travel in order to ensure the additional seat(s) is available.” Their standard isn’t based on seat belt extenders.

  7. I did this once on Jet Blue without being a Person of Size. Like the other airlines, they have a system for buying an extra seat. It worked out fine.

  8. When a passenger or flight attendant decides they want to commandeer your extra empty seat, simply say to them, “excuse me, your sitting in one of my two seats!.”

  9. @8bb8b8 wrong. It is perfectly legitimate for anyone willing to pay for two seats to have the seat next to them empty. I have clients who do this consistently with no issues.

  10. Is it possible to reserve the extra seat in the exit row if not physically handicapped or a person of size? Would love the extra width as well as leg space.

  11. We constantly do this on AA. Cheaper than first class and almost as comfortable. My fiancé and I will take the window and aisle seats respectively while keeping the middle seat empty for more comfort. I’ve found using miles for the extra seat to be a good strategy since the extra seat isn’t eligible for earning miles or EQD.

  12. I’ve personally had issues on WN and I know of others that have experienced same. I don’t know why but others have asked WN for more clarification that’s okay and so far I’ve not seen it. And no companion ticket can’t be yourself unfortunately that is in writing from them somewhere.

  13. Last year I was on a group Delta elite-qualifying-miles mileage/fun run in coach from ORD to MNL via DTW and NRT Rene’s Points organized the run, which was an homage to the soon-to-be-retired Delta 747. Even though Delta elite status guaranteed nothing less than C+ seating (Economy Comfort Plus), to ensure a comfortable trip, Rene bought a second coach seat for himself and also requested upgrades to business class with Global Upgrade Certs. His GUC cleared at the gate in DTW on the outbound but he was stuck in coach on the return. I envied the extra space the empty seat provided as I was sitting one C+ row in front on the packed 747. I don’t think he earned extra miles for the empty seat but as to the details, you’d need to check with Rene.

    Sitting next to an empty seat makes coach tolerable for long flights. It even makes a big difference in premium economy. When prices are really low, like on the MNL mileage run, it can be worth it to buy the seat yourself. Alternatively, you can gamble and select a seat at the rear of the cabin as they seem to be most likely to go unfilled. Another strategy is to spot empty seats to move to once on board. I tell a flight attendant my plans to move and do so immediately once the door closes or the FA says boarding has finished. If you are travelling with someone, splitting the cost of an empty middle seat benefits both and doubles the value proposition of spending the extra cash.

  14. More than once a FA has Asked about my empty extra seat but when I show both boarding passes they just back right off.

  15. Frank, I always do the same.

    I always go up to the gate agent prior to boarding to let them know I have an extra seat. I always have the printed boarding passes and if questioned on board, the FAs back off as soon as I say it’s an extra seat and have the boarding pass saying EXST (on AA).

  16. Do you lose your upgrade rights as Ex Plat on American if you’ve bought an extra seat?

    Does the Extra Seat on American incur MCE costs even if you are Exec Plat?

    This is very intriguing!

  17. Absolutely required for Trumpanzees. They should also provide coloring books so they keep their claws off women.

  18. I’m AA gold and I’ve never been charged for upgrading the extra seat to MCE for free within 24 hours of check in, so I’d assume the same goes for Exec Plat.

  19. Speaking of size, there’s always SOMEONE small enough to pick a political fight wherever they can. Looking at you, Greg.

  20. Don’t try to get into an Admiral’s Club by handing the desk agent your EXST boarding pass (when traveling on AA). It won’t scan although the last name is the same. The clueless ones will attempt to turn you away; have had them be downright nasty about it. They are the lowest ranking and lowest paid Club employees. I always hand them just the one boarding pass just to see how they respond, then they get a lesson on the job if they screw it up. For particularly egregious behavior on their part, it earns them a talk between me and the club manager, so they are aware of their personnel situation.

    In other news on this subject, I’ve had a passenger buy an extra coach seat, but then go sit in an exit row next to his “girl friend”. When I boarded and requested he vacate my assigned exit row seat, he attempted to coax me to take his two seats elsewhere on the aircraft. Shocked when I refused. Told him if he wanted to sit next to his sweetheart so badly, the FA would allow her to occupy his Extra Seat. He refused of course. So he went back to his assigned seats and I sat next to the abandoned woman. Guess he wasn’t so in love after all.

  21. So, on WN this is a morally questionable way to often get a free seat for a lap child. Instead of buying a seat for the lap child, by a second seat for the parent. If flight isn’t full you get a free seat (which you would have gotten anyway). But if it is, you at least have the guaranteed seat for the lap child.

  22. Have been travelling on airplanes for over 40 years and only today do I find out about this great extra seat option! Thanks for the detailed write-up!

  23. @Jim – Interesting that you don’t like being called out as the obvious racist that you are.

  24. We buy the middle seat on our frequent trips to JNB on Delta, makes all the difference. My wife can actually lay down with her feet on m tray table. a little wine and an Ambien and we are in Joburg

  25. @ben senese~ yes Ben, Southwest thinks ‘comfortability’ is a real word. I think it is two words, and not really compatible at that! Just another example of Americans taking gross liberties with the English language in an effort to sound knowledgeable or authoritative.

  26. @ Jake BWAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!! I just KNEW I could get one of you lefties to call me a racist!!!!! You clowns are so easy!!!! BWAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!! You forget that it’s your side that was and still is today the party of slaves. You fought against giving equal rights to all, enacted jim-crow laws, started the KKK, place 85% of abortion clinics in minority neighborhoods, and your DNC held a latino outreach they called the “Taco Bowl Engagement.”

  27. Are “Customer’s of Size” allowed to buy an Extra Seat on Allegiant? Frontier? Spirit— if the “Big Front Seats” aren’t available?

    If so, and you book these online, what do you use for a name?

  28. @Mark Yes – I’m “bizarre” because I find it hilarious when the only response a liberal can come up with is to cry “Racist” when in fact they are simply projecting.

  29. “The single most important factor in whether or not you have a good flight is having an empty seat next to you. The food or snacks seem better. Flight attendants seem friendlier. It’s less stressful overall.”

    Having just gone around the world (again) on multiple airlines can I please echo this and say SO TRUE!

  30. How about other airlines like Air Canada, Lufthansa, Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines?

    Thanks!

  31. Obviously American Airlines has become too politically correct to enforce their policy, and I (a frequent traveler at 6 feet and 220 pounds) had to pay for it. Traveling to Hawaii last month I was I was booked in a middle seat, on this completely full flight. I had been unable to change to an aisle seat, so was not looking forward to the long OCONUS trip. I boarded and was first into the row. Before long, a man, with his wife behind him arrived and asked if I would mind taking the aisle seat so that he and his wife could sit together. I eagerly accepted his offer and stepped into the aisle to allow them to enter the row.
    Wow – his wife appeared to be about 400 pounds or more in weight! The husband took the window seat and buckled himself in. She then raised the armrest and flopped onto the aisle seat and moved closer to her husband, with great difficulty. Her first action was to press the Flight Attendant Call Button, and she loudly demanded “extension!” When the flight attendant returned with a seat belt extender, the woman managed to buckle in, but was actually occupying not only her seat, but between 1/3 and 1/2 of my seat also, with the seat dividing arm rest raised. In fact, her left leg occupied the space intended for my right leg. I was forced to raise the (aisle) arm rest and scrunch down into a VERY uncomfortable position, with my left hip and left arm protruding into the aisle! There were NO seats open on the plane for me to escape to, so I endured the entire seven-hour flight in that position. Nearly every passenger passing through the aisle bumped me with their luggage during the rest of the boarding process and throughout the flight, and EVERY service cart passing through the aisle hit me for the next seven hours. I cannot remember being that miserable, since the mock POW camp I endured after USAF Pilot Training in the 1970’s. I know the flight attendants felt sorry for me, and they did their best to avoid hitting me with their service carts, but there was nothing they could do to alleviate my suffering.
    I purchased a whole seat, but only got half a seat (not to mention the physical strain and discomfort I endured for seven plus hours). Over the years I’ve endured hundreds of flights with varying discomforts including screaming babies, children kicking the back of my seat, overly talkative seat mates, and foreigners with indescribable body odor, and yet I have never “complained” before. But THIS experience was beyond what a loyal customer should have to put up with, especially since American Airlines CHOSE to VIOLATE their own policy: https://www.aa.com/i18n/travel-info/special-assistance/special-assistance.jsp#extraspace
    Thus far, after numerous interactions with AA Customer service (and two each snail mail letters to senior AA management), I’ve been told that “Our customers do come in all shapes and sizes”, and “Our airport personnel must walk a fine line in order to satisfy the needs and rights of all of our customers”. I was offered (to express AA’s apology) a mere 5,000 AAdvantage Miles, which appears to be about one/fifth the cost, in miles, for a one way AAdvantage Award fare for the same trip (of course not counting the additional service charges and taxes that would be MY responsibility). The AA Customer Service agent has since grudgingly offered an additional 2,500 miles, but this is still way short of fair compensation for my ordeal.

  32. RE: We buy the middle seat on our frequent trips to JNB on Delta, makes all the difference. My wife can actually lay down with her feet on m tray table. a little wine and an Ambien and…

    @Chuck,

    You are aware that there’s a hashtag in social media where other passengers are encouraged to take pics and post on the sly what grosses them out while flying that goes by #passengershaming, yes?

    No offense, but putting feet on the tray table is right up there with changing a baby’s poopy diapers, clipping finger/toe nails in public, or removing shoes/socks and going barefoot while flying (just to name a few things)…

    …oh, well, just another example of why everyone should be amply stocked with anti-bacterial wipes when they fly, and to immediately as if a surgeon scrubbing before an operation, aggressively and thoroughly, wipe down EVERYTHING in their immediate, and if possible, adjacent seat/environment – especially the tray tables!

    Given a virulent peanut dust allergy, I must do this anyway…but if others saw in their wipes what I’ve seen turn up by the time I’m done (including chunks of dried vomit), they’d know that nut allergy or not, and even as much as most people would rather die than be viewed by others as being too fastidious (or OCD), they’d soon realize that no matter how many furled eyebrows or “stank eyes” they get (it’s actually not very often, and once the peanut allergy is disclosed, the need is understood by all but the most boorish 😉 ), the few moments of their feeling “passenger shamed” is well worth eliminating all of the gross stuff they’ll see piling up in their wipes after their DIY pre flight clean-up on all but the newest airplanes (or those fresh out of an occasional ‘deep cleaning’).

    Trust me, totally grossed out more often than not is NOT an exaggeration – as the example volunteered by @Chuck should more than make clear!

    Just sayin’… 😉

  33. Hey Chuck. They don’t clean those tray tables and someone has to eat off it after your flight. Yes, it is gross and I’m surprised FAs haven’t said something to her. Use some common sense and have some consideration for others.

  34. @Chuck. Yes, gross for every passenger unfortunate enough to use that tray table on future flights. If you think it’s all OK, you both deserve to be called out as a pair of pigs. Oink, Oink!

  35. Anything can be put in 2d seat. Congressman Duncan Hunter Junior famously recently used taxpayer funds to fly his pet rabbit from CA to DC in first class seating The second most corrupt Congressman today!.

  36. Looks like the congressman used campaign funds, not tax dollars to fly the rabbit. (Before anyone jumps on that, I’m not saying it’s ok to use campaign funds for the rabbit ticket *it’s not*, but campaign funds aren’t tax dollars)

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