You may have seen news articles or posts on social media about people moving or refusing to move seats on planes. Things like “Mother angry because person won’t switch seat to let her sit with her son!”, stuff like that. Well, it’s my opinion that most of these are hyped up and sensationalised to get you to read them, clickbate. I’ve been flying for many years on a huge variety of routes, and I’ve only ever once been asked to switch seats. I think, maybe partially due to these articles, that most people now understand that generally people book seats. Those who don’t get what they’re given. It never hurts to ask someone if they would consider moving, but don’t get upset when they don’t want to.
Some personal experience
The one time I was asked was on a long-haul BA flight, returning to London. I had a window seat in Premium Economy, this meant it was in a small cabin with only 5 rows, laid out in a 2-4-2 configuration. A lady sat down next to me and asked if I would consider swapping with her husband so they could sit together. She then stood up and gestured for her husband to wave, he was in the aisle on the other side. Two things go through your mind when people make this request. Firstly, if I say yes, I’ll make someone happy, it feels good to help people, but equally I might be stuck with a seat I don’t like (I always like window seats for example). Second, if I say no, I will be stuck with someone next to me for 10 hours who basically hates me and of course there is a risk they could be one of the crazy people who is going to use harassment and try to embarrass you into moving. On this occasion I was feeling generous, so I agreed. I soon regretted it, the husband’s seat was actually in the last row, by the aisle on the other side, right by the toilet door. I had to satisfy myself that I’d done a good deed and maybe something good will happen to me one day.
I didn’t have long to wait. I noticed the cabin service manager was walking up and down the aisle with his iPad and he stopped by my old seat. He then spoke to the man who was in my old seat, looked very confused and then he disappeared. Shortly after he reappeared by my seat and spoke to me, “Are you Mr West?”, I told him I was, “You’ve moved seats, that confused me for a minute, anyway I’ve been asked by the Captain to find you a different seat, please follow me.” He then headed straight forward toward Business Class. I gathered my things, and he sat me in a nice Business Class seat.
Now I know what you’re thinking, he moved me because I was so generous? Well, no, I have a friend who works for BA and it turned out they knew I was flying and had put a call in to the Captain to ask him to look after me. So, if you believe in Karma, then this probably proves the point. I enjoyed a lovely flight up in Business Class and the couple got to sit together. They probably would have got to sit together anyway, as I was always going to be moved up and they could have switch when I was gone, but there you go.
What are the rules?
Well, if you book a seat, either for free or by paying, first of all the airline does not have to honour that. The airline can move you to any seat they like, it’s their plane and you have no rights. Sometimes they will move you to balance the plane, (common on smaller aircraft), and sometimes they will move you to allow a family with young children to sit together. Worse you could be moved and downgraded, this could happen if someone more important than you books a seat in your cabin. For example, a very high level frequent flyer could use one of their benefits to book a last minute Business Class seat. If the flight is full, they will select the lowest grade passenger and bump them down. If the airline moves, you then you should be able to get a refund for pre-paid seats and if you get downgraded again you should request a refund for the fare difference.
However, if another passenger asks you to move, there’s nothing they can do, it’s entirely up to you if you want to help them or not. Equally if someone has beaten you to it and stolen your seat before you sit down, simply ask the crew to help and they will be asked to move. I have found people in my seat before, I think that they either did not understand the seating system or in most cases they are just chancing it, hoping either nobody will claim the window seat they’ve nabbed or that somebody simply wont have the confidence to ask them to move. Unfortunately for them, I’ve always pointed out their error. I did once fly next to a mother and daughter, the daughter was clearly excited about the flight and was keenly looking over me to see out the window. When we were on finally approach to land, I offered to swap with them so they could see the landing, which they were very grateful for. Also, I then had an easy get away with my aisle seat at the last minute, win win!
If you have a seat preference, then book it and if necessary pay for it. If someone’s in your booked seat, ask them to move. It’s your choice.