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Who Gets to Use an Empty Middle Seat While Flying? These Are the Rules

When you’re lucky enough to have an empty in-between, does the aisle or window get priority use of the space?

No one likes sitting there, but sometimes it’s just unavoidable. Most airlines charge for window and aisle seats, some of the cheapest fares don’t let you pick a seat, and some airlines have open seating, so if you’re last to board…well there’s only one option left: the middle seat.

Whether you’re the passenger occupying the middle seat, or the passenger in the window or aisle, everyone prepares themselves for the armrest battle. Do you share it? Give your neighbor’s elbow a little push? Wait until they go to the bathroom, plant your flag and claim it as yours? That debate will never end. But there is a conversation about the middle seat we haven’t had yet: What do we do when the middle seat is empty?

Granted, it is a rarity, but it does happen. If you’ve never experienced it yourself, you surely have seen the look of anticipation on every window and aisle seat occupant’s face as they glare at the forward door, watching as each and every person walks down the aisle toward their row,  hoping and praying they just keep walking by. And then it happens–the door is closed. The extra space is yours! But really, whose space is it?

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On a recent flight between Washington, D.C., and Chicago, I experienced the euphoria that is having the middle seat empty, but the second the door closed, so did my hopes for a little extra room. The passenger seated on the aisle very swiftly, and only using his feet, relocated his backpack from under the seat in front of him to the under-seat storage for the middle seat. He then placed his tablet in the middle seat’s seatback pocket and then put his bag of snacks on the middle seat for takeoff. He moved in, and I was in shock. He didn’t pay for the middle seat (and neither did I), so why was he using it like it was reserved?

Generally, with the added space an empty middle seat provides, once inflight, the most I do is use a tiny portion of the tray table, closest to me, to place my drink or snack. This frees up my tray table for my computer or tablet. I never ask my seatmate if I can do it, I just assume it’s okay because I’m not using the whole area and leaving more than enough space for them to spread out and do the same. What are the best practices?

Etiquette expert Patricia Rossi says the “real estate” should be shared. Her advice on how to handle the situation is to have a conversation. “Both people have the right to that wondrous patch of real estate in the sky. I would say ‘Lucky us, we have this beautiful square of skyspace to share. Would you mind if I put my iPad, ear pod holder, book, travels snacks, etc. here?’”

This advice is especially important if you plan to take up space that cannot be shared, such as moving a bag into the under-seat storage for the middle seat. This action creates added legroom for you, and possible animosity with your seatmate who may be dealing with decreased floor space.  

According to flight attendants, the extra space is fair game, but some say you shouldn’t get too comfortable. If another seat breaks, if there’s a medical emergency on board, or if for any reason the crew decides they need that seat and the space, consider it gone. The crew has every right to relocate a passenger to that seat or use it if necessary. But outside of those situations, “It’s first-come-first-served space,” flight attendant Tamford Westeel told me. “However, common courtesy would be to ask your neighbor if they have any plans to use the space before you move in and take over. It’s important to remember we’re all in the same pressurized tube trying to from Point A to Point B, we should treat each other with politeness and respect.”

The situation I encountered with my seatmate was uneventful compared to a story shared by frequent business traveler and travel journalist, Juan Albarran. He had told me he was lucky enough to have the middle seat left empty on a flight, but the passenger next to him decided to occupy that seat as well as his original one. “Once we took off, the passenger on the aisle raised the armrest in between his seat and middle, then began to lay down, squeezing himself between my armrest and the aisle,” he said. “It was almost as if he was laying in my lap. When I looked down, I would see his face right under my armrest, I had no choice but to say something.” Albarran said after he spoke to the passenger, he sat up without hesitation saying, “it was uncomfortable anyway.”

In the spirit of politeness and respect, as a general guideline, it’s best to talk to the person next to you. A simple and polite question or comment can go a long way in creating an enjoyable experience for everyone.

musubi July 24, 2022

On a trip back from Egypt in May, a traveler took a sleeping pill and then put her feet on the middle seat (she had the window). In hindsight, I should have put a bag on "my half" but didn't think it was necessary to claim my half of the space. Then she proceeds to slowly stretch out until her feet were firmly against my left thigh. I couldn't ask her to move them because she was, ostensibly, asleep. So I lightly slapped her feet. She woke up and moved them back slightly and I immediately jammed the airline blanket between us. No apology by the way. I was appalled at her bad manners. She was an attorney from San Francisco who "flew this route alot" so it wasn't a newbie mistake.  Ugh. Lesson learned - claim "your half" of the empty seat immediately.

lauravaccaro6862 July 24, 2022

When sitting in an exit row with 2 seats (window seat missing) I used the extra underneath storage of the window seat in front of me but behind me in a window seat asked me to move my things so he could use it. So who should have used the overhead bin instead?

thirzasloan8670 July 15, 2022

I have suggested to the other person that we both might raise our armrests and have a little more elbow room.