Seat etiquette?

by kai on 28/10/2012

As some of you might know, I travel quite a bit and I could tell you lots of aviation-related stories covering the whole range from bizarre to awesome and funny. Currently I’m about 2/3 through a NZ-Singapore-Germany-Singapore-Australia-NZ trip and on yesterays’s flight from Brisbane (where I was working with a client during the last week) to Melbourne (where I’m going to run a full day jQuery Mobile workshop and present at cf.Objective(ANZ)) something interesting happened: I was faced with a moral/karma dilemma. Let me explain the situation and then I’d be really interested in your opinions.

I’m a Qantas Platinum Frequent Flyer. For the non-frequent flyer types among you: What this essentially means is that I fly often enough with them to have “earned” a somewhat preferential treatment when traveling on Qantas. Some of the benefits (that are relevant for this story) are access to the front economy rows of the plane, seat selection at time of booking as well as a rather “undocumented” feature that Qantas will go out of its way to block the seat next to me provided the flight is not full. The latter is rather nice as I’ve got a subscription to, which allows me insight into the actual booking systems to plan my trips, see “real” seat maps (and not the airlines’ “cut-down” versions etc), get real-time booking class availability etc. The essence is that I can pretty much plan my travel in a way so that I get the most convenient and nice trip experience, have more personal space to do work etc.

This morning’s flight was on a 737-400. Doemstic setup, rows 1-3 are business class (which on this flight means 3-3 layout with a “blocked middle seat” in each block of seats). I was in 4C (the first row of economy) because I knew that the flight had lots of availability anyway and 4B was blocked due to my status, 4A was free yesterday when I looked at the seat map the last time.

After boarding, there was a lady in 4A, no worries – lots of space between us, I placed a pile of newspapers on 4B but realized that she was already looking around nervously towards the back as if she was looking for someone. Something was bound to happen here. We’re out of the climb, seat belt sign goes off and she’s off racing to the back, coming back with a guy and says “Could you please let back in, my partner and I couldn’t get a seat together when we were checking in”.

Now, here’s the dilemma: I understand her desire to sit together with her partner. But I also wanted to get some work done and particularly booked this flight (about 2:20 hrs long) and organised everything in a way so that I could get 4C and 4B blocked and I wasn’t quite willing to give up that idea. So – I decided to politely decline and explain that Qantas had blocked the seat next to me as a frequent flyer benefit. Luckily the purser was nearby and overheard the conversation, chimed in and agreed saying that 4B is blocked but that she’d be happy to seat both of them (her partner was in 18A or so) in the totally empty exit row 11 or 12. The other option for the lady in 4A could have been to offer the person in 18B (next to her partner) to swap their seat to 4A (which would be a big improvement for them anyway) and bite the bullet sitting at the back of the plane. She was kind of unhappy either way but ended up moving to row 11/12 slightly unwillingly.

I’m seriously interested in your opinions here: What would you have done? Sucked it up and given away your benefit of the blocked seat next to you? Was it rude/inappropriate of me to politely decline her demand for her partner sitting in 4B instead of her moving to row 18 herself? I felt a little bit bad about the potential negative impact on my karma balance, but I personally think she’s earned more negative karma for being annoyed after the flight attendant had offer her a decent solution.

G October 28, 2012 at 12:02 pm

I also fly a lot, and I think when you do (esp in economy), you have to reserve the right to be an asshole. I’ve had run ins with people who wanted me to put back my seat (multiple times), and the same thing where they gave me a row to myself when there was a mess up with a points upgrade. That time I refused to let anyone in to the row and slept like a baby. It’s not nice, but it’s a jungle out there baby.

Mark Szulc October 28, 2012 at 1:04 pm

Hey Kai
Oh I’ve been in this situation many times! You are absolutely right in your thinking and ultimately you are playing a game of “whats more important” to both parties. I’ve certainly had issues where I’ve been traveling with Ruth and not been able to sit next to each other, but at the same time I’m always wanting to squeeze as much productivity into any flight.

Bottom line I think you did the right thing! You need to be firm that its important that you get your work done and that’s why there is an empty seat, not for their convenience. However, if you didn’t actually need the seat then I would have given it up. Looks like it worked out well for everyone anyway.

Mind you, I never count on being able to use my laptop on a flight so always have plenty of options.. sometimes its reading whitepapers on an iPad or sometimes its just reading my book later knowing that I’ll have to put in more time when i get to the airport.


Randy October 28, 2012 at 2:16 pm

I would of been secretly upset but I would have let them sit together right there. I would want someone to be nice and let my wife and I to sit together, but once the purser stepped in and offered the other seats, I would say you were off the hook because they had a solution to their seating issue.

I do think it was rude of you, but hey it all ended well. Hopefully you were able to get your work done and they were able to sit together. The fact that you feel bad by what happened should save you from the negative karma. Next time suck it up and be nice 🙂

Rawdyn October 28, 2012 at 5:29 pm

Totally within your moral/ethical/social right to deny access.

1. You pay your dues being a frequent flyer.
2. I suspect she was only not seated with her partner because they checked in late or booked very late.
3. There were other perfectly adequate solutions available.
4. The reasons for your denial were reasonable.
5. You will probably never see her again in your life

I don’t think you need any more reasons.

sue October 28, 2012 at 9:30 pm

People travelling economy normally get 24 hours to do online check in and reseve a seat. Or they can pay a little more and reseve their seat at booking.

When i travel with my mum we always pay that little more so we can sit together and know where our seats are. People can choose not to do this but in choosing that i think they don’t get to bother other passengers.

Dale Fraser October 28, 2012 at 9:50 pm


You did the right thing. I had a similar experience recently, I book well in advance to get a aisle seat, I always fly Qantas and know the seat layouts well. I was flying Premium and I pick a middle aisle the row in front of the exit isle. This does three things.

1. The middle in Premium is 3 seats thus the person stuck in the middle can exit left or right, thus less chance of having to move
2. Because the exit row behind, I can recline my seat at any time without affecting the people behind me
3. The people behind me are unlikely to grab my seat to pull themselves out of their seat.

To me this is the best scenario. So on my recent flight, no one in the middle seat and a couple asked me if I would mind moving one row back so that they could sit together. This would have been to a middle seat however in an exit row. I said no sorry, I specifically booked an aisle seat. They complained and said but its an exit row. I said I don’t like the exit rows in the middle, people use them as walkways.

Then the attendant thought I was being unreasonable and gave me a dirty look and asked the person on the right alise if he would swap, he reluctantly agreed and they all gave me a dirty look.

About one hour later, the couple both went to sleep and slept the entire flight, I know because I don’t sleep on flights. So how necessary was it that they sat together when they were just going to sleep.

One of my favourite sayings is

“Lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part.”

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