Photo: Matej Kastelic/Shutterstock

Why You Shouldn't Move to Another Open Seat on a Flight

Airports + Flying
by Morgane Croissant Jun 25, 2024

Any Economy-Class air traveler worth their salt knows that once the “boarding complete” announcement is made, it’s time to seek out a better seat — like a neighbor-free seat or even better, a full row. I’ve personally done it multiple times on flights that had a lot of available space, including a few instances when I got to stretch across four seats and catch some Z’s while on gruelling 10-plus hour trips. But, apparently, I shouldn’t have.

I knew that self-upgrading was not allowed. Moving from a simple Economy seat to a seat that carries an extra charge or a much higher rate, such as a seat in Business, Premium Economy, or one with extra legroom, is prohibited for the obvious reason that you did not pay for it. However, I was certain that moving to an open seat of the same rate was no big deal.

But according to air travel professionals, for your safety and that of everyone else on the aircraft, everyone should stick to their assigned seat. This is especially true when flying in smaller airplanes whose balance is calculated using individual seats.

Flight attendant Hailey Way, who has worked for SkyWest Airlines and charter airline iAero Airways, explains by email that on small regional planes, moving seats is not allowed, “unless it is passenger-to-passenger seat exchange.”

“If it’s deemed safe to rearrange passenger seating on an aircraft to accommodate weight and balance, then this is done prior to takeoff,” says Way, “Passengers should obey their assigned seats from then on.”

While there is more leeway on larger aircrafts, it’s still preferable that passengers keep the seats that were assigned to them prior to boarding.

“On commercial aircraft seating is usually split into multiple areas for weight and balance, not counted by individual seats,” explains Tyler Herbert, an airline pilot in Canada. “Based on passenger counts in these areas, our load planning crew will issue a weight and balance so ideally you would have people sitting where they are counted for accuracy.”

A tried-and-tested, but not fool-proof, method to easily get a neighbor-free seat on a long flight is to book one in a row of three where the middle seat is still free but either the window or the aisle is occupied. Because nobody wants to spend an entire flight sandwiched in between two strangers, there is a good chance the seat will remain empty — unless it is a full flight, of course.

And for those who believe that passengers should not moved from their assigned seats for identification purposes in the case of a fatal accident, Way debunks the idea.

“While the manifest is taken into account for passenger record or ‘souls’ on board, the full process of identifying victims in such accidents is much more complex. So, yes it is a myth that passengers’ bodies are solely reliant on the manifest. You have to take into account personal belongings, like ID’s. Also, forensic evidence will be examined along with DNA samples collected at site. Furthermore, visual identification from relatives or other family members is another way to get more accurate identification.”

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