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.
Last 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.
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 leaves it up to flight attendants whether or not to say something when a passenger changes to an empty seat. The policy was not to intervene if a passenger switched to a seat with extra legroom. When the airline started serving free cocktails in extra legroom coach they emphasized that they didn’t expect flight attendants to do extra work on this — but some flight attendants were mad that customers were getting away with something (free booze) that they hadn’t paid for.
When fares are cheap – especially basic economy fares — the better investment is buying a second seat in the cabin which airlines will keep empty next to you.