How to avoid the worst seat on the plane


Oh, the things passengers do to avoid the worst seats on the plane.

They beg. They negotiate. They even lie.

If you’re flying somewhere this summer and aren’t willing to pay extra for a preferred seat in economy class, chances are better than ever that you’ll end up in the dreaded middle seat or relegated to the back, engulfed in engine noise.

Why? It all comes down to money. Airlines want more of yours, and they think you’re willing to fork it over in exchange for (relatively) desirable seating.

Several years ago, discount airlines cleverly separated confirmed seat reservations from tickets in an effort to lower their fares — or so they claimed. For the most part, prices didn’t change significantly; airlines just added a new fee. In 2012, Delta Air Lines began offering a “basic” economy-class fare that doesn’t allow you to reserve a seat in advance — almost guaranteeing a middle-seat sentence — and its competitors are rushing to offer a similar product.

More than half of air travelers say they’re annoyed by uncomfortable airline seats, according to Qualtrics’s latest Airline Pain Index. Yet charging passengers to avoid pain is immensely profitable. Airlines made almost $11 billion in à la carte fees last year, which includes seat-reservation charges — a 24 percent increase over 2014.

But it turns out there are ways of avoiding the worst airline seats. Some practical, some ethical, some borderline.

“Book well in advance,” says Mark Beales, a retired mortgage banker from Mill Creek, Wash. “And only with an airline allowing seat selection at the time of booking, if possible.” (With many airlines — this is particularly true of international airlines — it’s still first-come, first-served.) A frequent traveler, Beales has used the strategy often.

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A free app called Seateroo, which calls itself an online market for airline seat swaps, lets you trade places with another customer — for a price. The app charges a 15 percent service fee; the minimum bid is $5.

James Goodnow, a lawyer and frequent air traveler from Phoenix, prefers to negotiate. He advises appealing to fellow passengers’ nobler natures. “If, for example, you’d like to sit closer to your kids, kindly ask the person in your target seat and explain your predicament,” he says. If that fails, you can always pull out your wallet and offer to buy your seatmate a drink.


Laura Marzola, a former flight attendant based in Charlotte, says pressuring fellow travelers or telling tall tales often is unnecessary. “It’s been my experience that most people — especially solo travelers and those traveling without children — are pretty flexible about seating,” she says. “If you ask nicely, and with a good reason, like sitting next to a small child or someone needing special assistance, or requesting extra leg room because of a health condition, most passengers are usually willing to switch seats with you.”

Don Halbert, the chief executive of a tour operator that specializes in vacations to Costa Rica, offers this piece of contrarian advice: Book the worst possible seat. In the worst part of the plane — the back. Because people will do anything to avoid the entire area.

“Typically no one will want the solo middle seat in the back of the plane,” he says. “This leaves you with an entire seat . . . as opposed to paying for extra seating and getting a few inches.”

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Chula Ranasinghe, a systems engineer from Davis, Calif., says understanding the psychology of substandard seat avoidance helps him create more space on a plane for his family.

When he travels with his wife and daughter, he requests an aisle, a window and a second aisle seat. Unless it’s a full flight, the middle seat will be the last one taken. “No one wants it,” Ranasinghe says. If someone shows up, they offer to switch, giving the person the option of sitting in an aisle seat. But in the best-case scenario, there will be extra space, because the middle seat is empty.

None of these strategies should be necessary, of course. Every seat on the plane should come with a minimum amount of legroom and space, and passengers shouldn’t have to beg, borrow or steal the slightly less painful seats from their fellow passengers.

And that’s something to remember as the summer travel season gets under way. Airlines will try to sell you back a little of the comfort that should have been yours to begin with. You can pay for it — but you don’t have to.

Should airlines be able to profit from your desire to escape an uncomfortable seat?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at chris@elliott.org. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

  • Alan Gore

    Market prices communicate information. In this case, carriers are being told that people don’t like middle seats. So make them wider, as Frontier did.

  • ctporter

    Imagine a plane where every seat had a 38″ pitch and a width of 28″, you would still have people NOT wanting to sit in the rear of the plane, middle seat or not. Location on the plane is a big concern, and not just for the noise issue if you fly a lot or have tight connections. Consider your “arrival” time is stated as 11am. The plane pulls up to the gate, captain turns off the seat belt signs and people start unloading their carry-on luggage from the overhead bins and exiting the plane in a single file. You can have 150+ people in front of you, which can mean it could be as much a 15-20 minutes before you are able to get off the plane. I have been on planes where we touched down on time, but had to wait out on the tarmac for traffic to clear, or for a slot to open. That can hurt you connections times, especially when you have to be at your connecting gate anywhere from 40 minutes to 10 minutes prior to boarding (which is NOT departure)

  • sirwired

    I PREFER the space near the engines… drowns out any crying babies, slimy suits that Will Not Shut Up, a group of gossipy girls on their way to (or worse, from) Vegas for a bachlorette, etc.

  • FQTVLR

    I am laughing at the survey question. Some people are always going to have the middle seats or those at the back of the plane. No amount of regulation will eliminate that.

  • Joe Reimers

    The unfortunate reality is there will always be middle seats and they will always be less desirable. I do think airlines need to keep groups traveling together as a group as much as humanly possible (particularly parents with children), but aside from that, it’s a simple issue of supply and demand. Maybe every seat SHOULD be equally comfortable, but reality dictates that aisle seats get extra elbow/leg room and window seats get a view.
    I really have a hard time getting upset about people who purchase Basic Economy fares getting stuck with middle seats: that’s part of the deal, and Delta makes no bones about it. But here’s the question: is Delta raising the price for its non-bargain basement seats, or is it offering a discounted rate on the worst seats in an effort to fill the plane? One can argue both ways.

  • Hanope

    Yeah, the noise issue is beside the point. Its the time it takes getting off the plane that makes being in the back a suck fest.

  • Chris Johnson

    It just sucks that the airlines are now charging you for what was free before, and airfares still continue to rise. Okay, I can see paying extra for the privilege of sitting in an exit row where there will be more legroom, call it some kind of quasi-upgrade, along with the Economy Plus section of United where you get more legroom. But for the privilege of reserving a normal aisle or window seat on American you usually have to pay extra – sometimes there are even extra charges for a middle seat, which really pisses me off. In fact, there have been times where I’ve gone online to select my seat on American and ALL of the available seats have an extra charge tacked on. So in that case I choose not to reserve a seat and choose to roll the dice, waiting until I get to airport, because I’m not paying extra for the privilege of sitting in a middle seat, and the airline will have to eventually assign me a seat anyway. Such madness. This is what we get when we have four airlines controlling 80% of the domestic market and a load factor (percentage of seats with butts in them) of 85%, the airlines can do whatever the hell they want. The only answer now is to open up the US domestic airline market to foreign airlines, but of course that will never happen.

  • MarkKelling

    What airlines are these people flying that have empty seats??? I really want to know!!

    Every flight I have been on for the last 18 months has been oversold. I even took a flight that departed at 01:00 in the morning hoping for a little extra room. But no, there were 12 extra people on that flight that got bumped (and it was a small regional jet so everyone on baord was cramped and uncomfortable).

    We just have to face the fact that modern air travel is the same as riding a greyhound bus — a seat that will get you where you are going hopefully close to on time. No regulation will ever change that without doubling or tripling the per seat price.

  • Chris_In_NC

    And this is the reason why I prefer southwest. Even if I am booking close to departure I still have a fair chance of avoiding a middle seat by purchasing early board.

  • Chris_In_NC

    Unless I have a tight connection, I prefer the back of the plane, or seats near the engine. The white noise does drown out other noise.

  • sirwired

    Some seats will always be less comfortable than others; I don’t have any problem with airlines deciding to make money off that simple fact.

  • sirwired

    I do think Frontier’s thing with making the middle wider was a great idea, and I’m surprised more airlines don’t do it. There’s only so much you can do for seat comfort in a six-abreast narrowbody, and this seems to be a pretty fair solution.

  • Jeff W.

    There is nothing wrong with the airlines charging more for better seats. Not everyone can sit in the front or on the aisle. Planes only come in so many sizes, so someone has to be in back and/or in the middle. If there are people willing to pay for better seats, why is that a bad thing?

    You go to a restaurant. Some tables are next to the fireplace, some are next to the bathrooms or the kitchen. But the steak still costs the same regardless of where you sit. Some might not call that fair. I suppose you can slip the host something on the side, and that is no different than an airline charging extra for the seat.

    You go to a movie theater. Some seats are in the front row or on the sides and others are dead center. But I haven’t seen any movie houses that charge extra depending on the seat. (Although some are now starting assigned seating.) Or you can arrive early and wait in line.

    The airlines know that a good portion of flyers base their purchase solely on price. And the cabins are configured accordingly. If the first class and/or “better” economy seats always sold out, you would be darned sure the airlines would be adding more. And if you think price is not a #1 factor for some people, then the Spirit’s of the world would not exist. But they do and they are packing them in. So why would DL/UA/AA and the likes not look at that and try to capture some of that market?

  • Mark

    As someone who’s faced requests from people who feel entitled to be able to demand to swap seats, let me offer a few (controversial?) thoughts:

    1) Remember, no passenger is obliged to swap seats with you. Acting as though its an entitlement is not going to endear yourself to your fellow passengers.

    2) Some people have paid for their seat assignment. They may consider it an unreasonable request to be asked to swap, when the passenger making the request had a similar opportunity to pay for a seat assignment and chose not to.

    3) If you want to have more success requesting a seat swap, offer the other passenger a better seat. Don’t be surprised/disappointed if you are given a polite “sorry, no” if you ask a passenger with an aisle seat at the front to swap for a middle seat at the back. If your party is spread out over the plane, it’s far easier to get the offer to swap seats with someone who’s at the back of the plane and move them forward.

  • AAGK

    I rarely pick seats. If sitting in economy, I usually just get the premium seat free at the airport bc it’s usually all that’s left. Most people have no problem switching seats, I’ve asked before to get 2 together but I wouldn’t dare ask if not offering the same or better. I think any seating requests that must be accommodated (i.e. Parent/child, disabled, too fat, don’t recline) should be handled through the FA to avoid any pointless debates with a stranger.

  • AAGK

    It doesn’t bother me at all if someone asks me to switch to a worse seat. I just say no and forget about it.

  • LeeAnneClark

    Just a little tip for my fellow Elliott fans: there’s an awesome website called “seatguru.com” that provides detailed information about seats on virtually every airplane you might fly. You can enter your flight info, and it will show you the seat map and provide details about any potential issues with your seat. It’ll tell you if your seat has a limited recline, or has bassinet hangers on the bulkhead right in front of you, or has reduced pitch due to the extending restroom, or whatever.

    It also lists seats that have benefits without having to pay extra for premium! I just flew to Frankfurt on Lufthansa, and I picked a basic economy seat that, due to the shape of the plane and position of the restrooms, had massive legroom (so much that I could literally stretch out my legs!). This seat was not in the Premium Economy cabin, and you couldn’t tell that it was better than all the other economy seats based on the airline’s seat map – but seatguru listed this as an enhanced seat so I grabbed it.

    This won’t help you if you’re unable to reserve your seat, but if you are, might as well try to nab the best one in your class of service, right? I use it for every flight.

  • ctporter

    I agree, that is why I get irritated at suggestions that “all seats should be the same” because the reality is they CAN NOT, width, leg room mead diddlysquat if it takes you 20 minutes just to deplane! (and possibly miss a “legal” connection. (can you tell I have missed those, which is why my minimum connection time is now at least 2 hrs, I do not mind being early, it is very bad professionally as well as personally when I cannot make it to my destination on time)

  • ArizonaRoadWarrior

    purchasing early board is no different than paying a fee to the airline to select your seat…you might pay less on Southwest (don’t know what the price for early board) but you are still paying money

  • Randy Culpepper

    I’m a regular flyer (400k miles in the past six years), and I just don’t understand most peoples’ obsession with snagging this mythical perfect seat. Honestly, I think people are determined the traveling experience is going to be horrendous experience unless a ridiculous set of conditions are met, all so they can complain later about how awful it was.

  • Noah Kimmel

    except…airfares are still historically relatively cheap. Airlines have invensted huge sums in new technology allowing you to check-in, change your seat, change your delayed flight, get a boarding pass, track your bags, etc. Snacks and drinks are coming back, and Delta even announced a meal in economy on a domestic flight. Entertainment is better than ever before with wifi on most flights and more free TV. “Paying extra” is your choice and either it has value to you or it doesn’t.

    and if all else fails, fly JetBlue

  • Chris Johnson

    Are they relatively cheap? They certainly were for a while, when there was more competition, load factors were lower and in almost any market Southwest Airlines entered into. Now they nickel and dime you and it seems like airfares have gone back up. Perhaps they are less expensive in relative terms than in the days before de-regulation, but they seem to have been on the rise lately, and it’s really no surprise, given the shared monopoly the domestic market has become.

  • Fishplate

    Exactly. I can’t remember the last time i flew on a flight with even one empty seat. Imagine the poor schmoe that takes Don Halbert’s advice on any of those flights…and winds up cozily tucked between a couple of sumo wrestlers.

  • Fishplate

    I’ll swap up, but never down. I am happy to pay for seat selection, because the alternative is too gruesome to contemplate. Offer me a worse seat in exchange for mine, and I’ll laugh out loud.

  • joycexyz

    Just hope they don’t switch planes on you.

  • AirlineEmployee

    Years ago the airline and station I work at used to actually have an agent look at every flight in advance (6-10 hours) to sort out families traveling (or 2 or more persons) together and preassign seating for them. It eliminated so many problems and time wasting at the gate. Now every person, travel agent, or anyone else who can get into a PNR does it all. No wonder the IT systems can’t take the overload and disparity. The airlines need to stop charging for the seat ALREADY PAID FOR !!

  • Mel65

    I hardly ever pay for a seat selection, unless I’m traveling for work and absolutely HAVE to be there by a designated time (and due to policy, I can’t always fly in a day early, take a more desirable/expensive flight, etc…). In those cases, I pick a seat I want and you’re going to be hard pressed to get me to change my seat for someone who rolled the dice and didn’t pay for a seat. When I travel with my hubby for leisure, we try if we can to get seats together, but mainly just because he’s 6’1 and likes the aisle and i’m 5’1 so a middle seat is fine for me and we can share some space, but we don’t HAVE to sit together, and sometimes, since he’s a more frequent flyer than I, he’s even gotten a first class upgrade while I stay in the cattle car. In the cases we can’t sit together, we kiss each other bye with wishes for a happy flight and see each other at our destination.

  • mbods2002

    On a recent Southwest, full flight, a last minute family showed up and all that was left were middle seats. Dad sat in the middle in front of me, 10 year old sat in the middle beside me (very sweet child) and the mom and baby searched around for another middle seat. My fellow window mate started getting up, looked at me and said, “Come on, let’s give up our seats so they can sit together.” I didn’t move and said, “No, I can’t sit in the middle, but you’re welcome to.” He sat back down with a shocked look on his face, then a sneer as though it was my fault somehow and I was the worst person imaginable. I couldn’t help but think that I am not the bad gal here, I didn’t create this awful situation of the middle seat horror, the AIRLINES did. This horrible, terribly selfish person (me!) counts down Southwest’s 24 hour, before flight seating assignments just so I’ll get a window/aisle seat. If I ever get a “C” assignment, I’ll break down and purchase an A 1-15 seat. It’s very important to me not to be in the middle, it’s like I can’t breath or something. Would I have taken money, if offered? NO, I can’t sit in the middle seat. Would you have given up your aisle seat, knowing the middle seat makes you feel claustrophobic?

  • LeeAnneClark

    Yeah, that does throw a monkey wrench into everything! ;)

  • LostInMidwest

    I am not going to go into this. As far as I am concerned, all seats should be like at least business class and no more than 2 seats between aisles. Don’t really care how much it would cost then, not my problem.

    Which brings me to the REAL problem. I truly do not give a flying donut how bad seating in a plane is, how badly treated people are, how much it sucks to travel if flying is involved … none of this matters. What really matters is : YOU. DO. NOT. HAVE. A. CHOICE. You do not have a First World country road infrastructure that could allow 100 mph average speed of travel. You do not have high speed rail infrastructure that could allow 100 mph average speed. So, suck it up.

    And if you do not like sucking it up, refresh your civics, re-read Bill Of Rights, figure out why you have 2nd Amendment and act accordingly. If your Government refuses to do its duty and provide infrastructure that would meet citizen’s needs, then force them. Or kill them.

  • ctporter

    For the most part I agree, BUT, selecting a specific seat in advance does not mean it is a “perfect seat”, it is just a seat that some flyers PREFER over other seats. (most often for practical reasons such as making a tight connection) Picking “that” seat lessens the angst that travel that travel now days incurs. The real issue for those of us that DO travel frequently on those mythical “business” trips is that we have to book as cheaply as we can, but, sadly, it is often at the last minute, so we hope to NOT be displaced into a middle seat farther from the deplaning area so that we can have a chance at making those tight but legal connections in order to accommodate someone that did not choose early
    enough, or they gambled on being able to guilt others into switching seats..

  • pauletteb

    I am not giving up the window seat I either paid extra for or booked early enough to get at no extra charge . . . period!

  • pauletteb

    I recently flew United into Dulles and booked early enough to get window seats at no extra charge. Even paying $25 each way for a checked bag, it was cheaper than flying Southwest into Baltimore (equally convenient).

  • pauletteb

    Amen!

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