The New York Times recently featured a story titled: ‘I Refused to Switch Seats on a Plane. Twice. Was I Wrong?’ The reader submitting the question wrote: “I am an organized person. When I travel, I book my flights well in advance. This usually lets me claim my preferred seat: on the aisle in the bulkhead row. I have long legs, and those seats tend to provide more legroom — not that I have to justify myself. This brings me to my problem: The last two times I’ve flown, a steward asked me to change seats to accommodate a parent flying alone with small children. My moving would allow them to sit together. But I didn’t want to move! (They could have booked in advance, too.) So, I politely refused. Several passengers made nasty comments. Was I wrong to hold my ground?”

The New York Times expert replied with: “Generally, you are entitled to sit in the seat that you paid for — the one that is printed on your boarding pass. (Let’s put aside rules about emergency exit rows and other special circumstances.) You weren’t “wrong” to politely refuse a request to move. Any number of passengers could have done so to accommodate those families. I wouldn’t be doing my job, though, if I didn’t encourage you to empathize with the parents. Flying with young children is challenging; doing so while sitting in separate rows, or under unexpected circumstances (a distant family member falling ill, for instance), is far more difficult. Now, none of this obliges you to change seats. Just let it be part of your calculation.”

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I totally understand both sides but as someone who is extremely organized and who spends hours planning trips and setting seat alerts so that my family and I get the seats we’re most comfortable in, it bothers me when I hear stories like this.

Obviously, there are a lot of variables involved. Did the parents book a trip at the last minute for an emergency or did they book far in advance and didn’t spend the time to get seats together? I’ve been on both sides of this multiple times.

There have been times when our flight was cancelled or missed a connection and there weren’t seats together. If it was just me and my wife traveling, we would politely ask if one of our seatmates would be kind enough to switch but if they didn’t, we certainly wouldn’t press them. We would just suck it up and sit apart.

But most of the time, one of our seatmates would switch and that’s because I made sure we had something to offer. No one in their right mind would go from a window or an aisle seat to a middle seat. So that’s why, if I couldn’t get seats together, I would at least assign us an aisle and a window so we had some leverage and a better chance of enticing someone to move.

I would also get on the plane early and ask the passenger before they got settled in. Once someone puts their bag in the overhead space, wipes down their seat and puts their stuff in the seatback pocket (not that you want to do the latter since it’s filled with germs), it’s more of a hassle for them to switch.

RELATED: The 7 Dirtiest Things on an Airplane, According to a Flight Attendant

I also try to keep our rows close together so people don’t have to move their bag in the overhead if I don’t reach them in time. The most coveted coach seats are the exit row and bulkhead so you can’t ask someone to switch rows from one that has extra space to one that doesn’t.

RELATED: How to Get the Exit Row For Free

When it comes to small children, the rules do get thrown out because you can’t expect little kids to sit alone. I remember once, I was flying from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, and I had an aisle seat. This was decades ago and I can’t remember why I wasn’t in an exit row but a mother sat next to me in the middle and her little boy sat across the aisle in the other middle seat. He was crying, “I want to sit next to you, Mom!” so before she even asked, I volunteered to switch.

Well, wouldn’t you know it … for my good deed, a few minutes later, a Hawaiian Tropics model who was terrified of flying, sat in the seat next to me. Yes, I was single back then and when she asked if she could hold my hand if there was turbulence, I couldn’t reply fast enough with a resounding ‘yes!’ But, you gotta be careful what you wish for. The turbulence was wicked on descent and she not only held my hand but she dug her nails into my arm. The worst part was that her boyfriend, who could have doubled for The Rock, was waiting for her at the gate when we arrived.

But I digress. If you want to avoid having to cave to peer pressure or looking like the bad guy by not switching seats to accommodate families, then book a seat in the  exit row since kids under 15 can’t sit there. If you are someone trying to get a fellow passenger to switch seats, then make sure you have something to bargain with and if you don’t, cash helps.

What’s your take on switching seats on a plane? Drop a comment below!

UPDATED: Here’s some good insight from a reader, which will make you think twice about giving anyone attitude for saying no:

“One other thought on switching. When I was an armed federal officer on the flight (plain clothes), I could not switch seats. The pilot and flight crew needed to know where I was in the event of an emergency. Now I couldn’t disclose that at the time of the request and had to decline. Then came the looks. Now a flight attendant wouldn’t ask that because they know the reason. It was usually an individual request. So I’ll reemphasize not to get mad at the person who refuses. There may be another reason.”


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43 Comments On "Are You Obligated to Switch Seats on a Plane?"
  1. Cindy|

    That’s a hard no. I pick my seats carefully because of my joint condition. I need to get up and move around so I always pick an aisle seat. I am sorry but I am just as important as you are.

  2. Ken|

    I just avoid the bulkhead…. I’m tall as well but sitting next to screaming children isn’t worth it.. Just get an aisle and suck it up if exits and other opportunities don’t exist….

  3. Catherine|

    I happily switched when they offered to move me to first class!

  4. Benita|

    With Southwest I always pay extra to be sure to get an aisle seat near the front of the airplane. A few years ago the passenger next to me was overweight and had booked two seats — so I’m happy with the extra elbow room. Just before takeoff the flight attendant told me I had to switch seats. Another overweight passenger had booked two seats BUT when he got on the plane, only middle seats were left. She told me I HAD to move to a middle seat near the back of the plane. I certainly wasn’t happy with that situation, particularly because I had paid extra for my original seat. But with Southwest, there are no seat assignments

  5. Pammie|

    I would gladly switch if the airlines priced all seats the same like they used to but am not giving up a AA PREFERRED MAIN CABIN SEAT that I either paid extra for or got thru my loyalty to AA. Sorry

  6. Max|

    I had a situation a few years ago when the plane was full except for the middle seat next to me and the seat directly behind it and we were all waiting for the doors to close. I had settled into my aisle seat. At the last second, two young women came on board and were frustrated that they had middle seats and not together, so the one next to me said “Why don’t you go back there and take her seat so she and I can sit together?” as if it was expected that I would just jump up and do that. I politely said no, that I was comfortable where I was, but she became disrespectful and wouldn’t let up even after the plane had taken off and the pilot had turned off the seatbelt sign. At the time, I was learning Portuguese from cd’s and decided to spend the rest of the flight with my ear buds and she had to listen to me speak in Portuguese responding to the Portuguese lessons and I made sure she could hear every word all the way across the United States.

  7. Rose|

    I can’t believe 2 adults HAVE to sit together on a plane flight. If they do, book early and pick your seats like I do. I don’t give up my seats. So far so good. My husband and I sit aisles with me in front of him as I don’t recline my seat but one notch. Works for us.

  8. Anonymous|

    In Delta’s first class to NYC I encountered a young woman who, because she met an ‘old boyfriend’ according to her in the line waiting to get into the plane, wanted to sit next to him, also in first class. Probably because I was by myself at the window she asked the steward if I would move so she and her BF could sit together. Would I move to the bulkhead aisle with a screaming baby next to me. No, not happening. Well the young woman thru a fit, called me a bitch, etc. unfortunately for her loud enough so everybody in first class could hear her. She got in my face and continued her tirade at lower volume but I took then took the opportunity to say loud enough everyone could her me included 3 stewards standing frozen waiting to jump…”don’t threaten me again or I will scream and you won’t be sitting anywhere other than the police room at the airport”…I got almost a 100% standing ovation from all within earshot. She shut up, was taken into the kitchen area and probably got a warning. I was a little shook up but my response made my day…till she accosted me again when getting my luggage so I notified the police in the area at LaGuardia and they walked her to their office. FYI – the old boyfriend was so embarrassed by her he stayed in his seat and looked sheepish the whole trip…Hold your ground!

  9. Anonymous|

    Way to go! LOL

  10. Tim|

    For a family with a small child, I would seriously consider moving as a courtesy, however since the airlines are all charging you in some way if you want a good seat, they should compensate you for that. But for others, no. I recently had an AA flight from Atlanta to LA, and paid for a preferred seat on the aisle as I usually do. The window seat was occupied, but the center seat was open. We were just about to close the door, when an overweight man boarded and headed for the center seat next to me. He asked if I would sit in the middle so he could have the aisle since he was anxious about flying. I politely declined. Unfortunately it was an uncomfortable flight since he could barely fit in his seat. I had to lean into the aisle the entire flight. The thing that really bothered me, was that a crew member was dead heading and was seated in an empty middle seat in the exit row. They should have had the crew member move out of that premium seat and let either me or this guy sit there. I didn’t think fast enough to make that request. I think the flight crews should be more proactive about that when they see an uncomfortable seating arrangement, when they have crew on travelling on board. Sorry, but crew getting premium seats should be the exception.

  11. susan|

    I will only change from one aisle to another aisle in Economy Plus. I will never take a window seat in an exchange unless it’s in first class. I’ve changed with families but it was always to another aisle – and it kept me from sitting next to some small children!

  12. RC|

    I empathize with people traveling together who wish to sit together, including families, but every legacy carrier has a flexible seating chart that you can monitor from booking time literally until almost boarding time.

    I’m a bit taller and try to plan out my travel so that I do have an aisle seat also as I have a bad knee. When folks have asked me to move, I am very polite but explain that I paid for my seat in advance so that I could have extra leg room or movement.

    In most cases folks are pretty understanding. Even on Southwest, this has happened when I had early boarding – because I paid extra or checked in literally at 24 hours before – and the C boarding category folks get pushy demanding that I move 15 rows to the back of the plane kind of thing. When I’ve seen elderly couples board late and be likely to be separated, I’ve offered without being asked.

    But the one thing that’s really upsetting is the sense of entitlement by the folks who have literally demanded or told me that I needed to move to accommodate them with me as a single traveler. Especially lately, I noticed the trend are folks who have basic economy tickets and board last on legacy carriers – and seem to be annoyed that they have a bunch of middle seats assigned. Basic economy states exactly that issue if you want to save a few bucks and not pay for the seats. So I don’t have any sympathy.

    Yes, it’s a tough situation with all the traveling Dynamics but I think you’re within your rights to want to keep the seat that you have unless there’s not an upgrade or a reasonable alternative or similar seat available. Especially if a longer flight.

  13. CuJo|

    Usually I would switch, it depends on the situation. It’s best to put others before yourself, despite what some others may think.

  14. Tom Anderson|

    I, too, book my flights way in advance and always get to the airport early. Unless there’s a very good reason I will not switch… and even then only to an aisle seat.

  15. Ray Gauthier|

    I was also asked by a mother to switch seats. I agreed to do so, but her seat was next to the toilet. Unfortunately, I had to endure the smells for the rest of the trip.

  16. Michael A Ristow|

    I live on the Big Island of Hawaii and when I travel on inter-island hopper flights, I
    purposely book a window seat on the pertinent side both directions of the plane to view the islands and the coastline. I really enjoy the views. For me it’s like watching the sunset, they don’t get old.

    But being male and flying alone, it seems that the likelihood of being picked by a flight attendant to
    give up one’s seat so a family may sit next to each other on a 30-minute flight is VERY high. It’s
    happened far too many times for it to be a coincidence. If it’s not me it’s another male flying alone
    being asked to move and I find myself chuckling under my breath that that guy got it and I didn’t get picked.

    | doubt the flight attendants even think about this what I call “flight attendant gender targeting”. l’ve resigned myself to expect it for its’ predictability, and I do feel a little miffed when I’m picked again because of my advanced planning, but I just move. After all it’s a short flight.

    After reading these posts, maybe next time I won’t move:)

  17. S. Kincaid|

    I am an older woman who generally travels solo. I book my travel well in advance and select my seat at the same time. I do not give up my assigned seat. I am not your sweet old gray haired grandmother, and I don’t care how cute your kids are, I’m not moving. Plan ahead or drive.

  18. G Mayes|

    I travel alone quite frequently, plan ahead and select my seat for a reason and hold my ground.
    NOW, if the airlines want to “offer” an upgrade OR an incentive to accommodate someone who is whining to the flight attendants, I MAY consider such an offer, but more than likely not.
    Like S. Kincaid, I am an older woman as well. And like her, I am NOT your sweet old aunt or grandmother. I have no children, hence no grandchildren. And I, as well, really don’t care how adorable your kids are. OR your ESA (emotional support animal). I am not moving.

  19. frnklw|

    How about arriving at your seat and finding someone already sitting there, all settled in, who then asks if I mind him taking my seat so he could sit next to his wife? I didn’t say anything but thought after that I should have said no but didn’t want to cause a scene. You “have” to sit next to someone? Grow up. I traveled from Boston to Key West with three kids between 6 and 10, and we were not seated together. The flight attendant asked if I wanted her to ask people to move so we could sit together, and before I could reply my kids declined saying they were “all set” – they behaved as angels sitting alone.

  20. Sam|

    As a non family-attached member of society, who travels a lot and was faced with this more than once, it really bugs me when families put single travelers in this situation. Even the longest flight on earth is 16 hours and however much you love your husband, kids, sister, uncle, or fourth degree cousin am sure most people can survive being “separated” by five meters of seat rows for the duration of a flight. Often times members of said family will spend using their phones, watching their screens or sleeping. It really edges on entitlement in my book for families coming onboard and somehow feeling they’ve earn the right to seat privileges, disturbing other passengers and peer pressuring them into giving up their seat. You may be going on vacation with your band, but that one person maybe going to a dreaded funeral or a new job they’re already stressed about without you adding to their stress level because you need your emotional support humans next to you.

  21. Dave|

    The last time I bought tickets for a flight I did so in advance and chose seats… then when preparing to board, was assigned a completely different seat! Separated 3 travelers to different areas: myself, wife, n teenage niece. Paying extra didn’t count for Jack!!!

  22. Kim|

    In these days of having to PAY EXTRA a lot of the time to get a specified seat… I agree with everyone who politely says no, weighs ALL of the circumstances and what (everyone has to offer) if I do agree.. And if I don’t get a seat I had to PAY EXTRA for, I always request the airline REFUND MY SEAT MONEY! Don’t forget to do the same if you’re found in this situation! ESPECIALLY when your flight is canceled and the airline is responsible for your choice seat loss on your rebooked flight.
    ALWAYS ask for your money back if you don’t get the seat you PAID for

  23. gathermewool|

    I think it’s a tough call. Do we really have time to ascertain and give judgement on the circumstances surrounding their seat separation? “Nope, that’s not a good enough excuse, I’m staying here”…I think I’d get fewer dirty looks and side comments by simply and politely saying no, then trying to figure out whether they have a good enough reason or can incentivize me to move to a worse location.

    IF it was possible to have a civil discourse on the subject AND a convincing enough excuse was given (e.g., death in the family, emergency, not enough money, etc.), then I would almost always move, except to a location one poster mentioned above…near the bathroom. No, thank you.

  24. James Catania|

    Sorry but NO…..parents with children should plan better and if seating apart is an issue BOOK ANOTHER FLIGHT….your children are not my problem…..Sorry but not sorry

  25. Pamela Specht|

    My husband and I were seated in a 2X2 first class section, all settled in. We were in our mid-70s at the time. A stewardess with an elderly lady came to us and asked to check our boarding passes. We asked why and were told we were in the wrong seats. We handed over our boarding passes, which she kept (!). I was asked to switch seats with the elderly lady. I was in the window seat, my husband in the aisle seat. I asked why and was told the elderly lady wanted to sit with her husband. I asked where he was and stewardess pointed out the husband in the very back of first class. I indicated if I switched seats with the elderly lady she would not be sitting next to her husband. She would be sitting next to my husband. Stewardess and elderly lady went to front of plane, knocked on pilot’s door and got what I assume was the assistant pilot. He came back and asked me to switch seats. I said “no” and told him my switching would not solve the elderly lady’s request to sit next to her husband. The pilot kept asking in different ways/ I kept saying “no”. Finally, the elderly lady said she would just sit elsewhere. She complained about me all the way to her seat and I was stared at/ glared at. When the flight was over, the elderly lady’s husband was in the deboarding area and really gave me a glare. I do not know what exactly was going on, but I do not think it appropriate to ask a passenger to give up his/her seat and really not appropriate to get a pilot to ask.

  26. MJ Robertson|

    If its the same type of seat, I’ve willingly switched. But I’m not going from an exit row or bulkhead seat I paid for just because someone wants to sit next to their special someone.

  27. Molly Simon|

    I get up a lot of flights and don’t want to annoy my seatmates, so I always book an aisle seat, and I often fly alone without my husband. If I was asked to switch, I would do it if it was an “equal” seat, ie, aisle, not right by the bathroom. Or I would switch if I was offered a better seat – biz or first, or more legroom. I definitely wouldn’t do it to sit in seat I don’t want – window or middle. And if I paid extra for better leg room, I would only do it if it was a short flight (less than 3 hours) AND I got a refund on the extra I paid for the better seat.

  28. Claudia Teuner|

    I had booked a flight and paid for my seat on an Air Canada flight from Toronto to Frankfurt for August 31, 2022. An aisle seat with just one seat beside me. Shortly before take off three flight attendants showed up, called my name and when I identified myself I was LITERALLY pulled off my seat by my arm and given a new boarding pass. The same happened to the lady beside me. I was placed across the aisle. The lady in that seat was moved one row back. It turned out that the gentlemen beside me now was her husband. ??? The now vacant two seats were given to a lady and her little boy. Her husband was seated some rows behind. Again, as I figure, a family who had not been willing to pay for three seats together. I was very upset but it was too late to complain.

  29. Dana Schreiner|

    If I am traveling alone, I will only exchange seats if they are offering a better seat than the one I am in. Of course, that never happens.

    One time we were traveling internationally and a woman wanted my window seat. She threw a fit when I refused to give up the window seat next to my husband so she could lean against the wall and sleep. Her seat was an aisle seat two rows behind my husband. That was a HARD NO.

    This dear, young woman ended up sprawling all over the poor lady sitting next to her. There were several conversations between the young woman, the lady next to her trying her best to sit in the seat she was assigned and the stewards, including the head steward from first class and the co-pilot. I don’t know why they let her stay on the plane as she caused problems before we left and for several hours during the flight.

  30. C M|

    I have read similar columns like this one. One of the suggested responses is perfect: “I paid extra for this seat because (insert reason here). Are you willing to pay me X dollars for me to give up a seat I paid extra for?” (Added note: “X dollars” can be more than you paid, if you want to do so.)

  31. JP|

    Would you change seats to accommodate a disabled person?

  32. John Lindsey|

    I am 80+ years old and have a brace on my left leg. I always pick a right-side aisle seat for the ease of mobility…so I won’t have to inconvenience the other 2 passengers if and when Mother Nature calls. If I was younger and with no brace, I would consider swapping.

  33. Christopher J Blake|

    Very rarely would I change seats. I select mine well in advance esp. for long transcontinental or international flights. Other people can do so as well. I am 75 and mildly handicapped (cerebral palsy mild) and mildly arthritic. So it is an aisle seat or business class or better.

    If it Southwest, I always preboard and will not give up my aisle seat. It is crazy to expect people to give up an aisle seat for the middle seat.

  34. Dianne Autenzio|

    We booked aisle 6 as my husband is handicap and I was having knee problems,
    we checked in had our boarding passes for row 6
    then while waiting they called my husband up and moved u to the very last row
    where we were crammed w a baby and mom on the outside
    The people who sat in our seats were friendly w gate attendant
    it was a dissgrace, I cannot believe they did this and after hours on the phone
    Jet Blue was terrible to deal with
    I am still looking as the flight was expensive for us to be treated like that and to be crammed
    while my family was in row 7 we were split up my family was there to help me w my husband

  35. W Edmund Chambers II|

    Last year I was taking American Airlines to London. The fares were $531.00 for a Basic Economy seat and $688.00 for a Main Cabin seat a price difference of $157.00. Because I am handicapped, I paid the difference and chose the Main Cabin rate to be a little more comfortable. I chose an aisle seat in both directions as close to the bathroom as I could get which cost me $81.00 each. My total ticket, including seats, fees, and taxes, was $972.85. Once on board the plane, which was a packed flight, I was approached by a crew member stating they had a couple who wanted to sit together and asked if I would give up my seat for them, I refused telling her I was handicapped and I chose my seat based on the closeness of the bathroom which was still a short walk. The crew member was relentless and insisted I give up my seat and I stood my ground. I am not giving up my seat I paid $82.00 for. It is not my fault the couple decided to wait for the last possible minute so they would be assigned free seats. I told the crew member that unless they [American Airlines] gave me a first-class seat near a bathroom and immediately refunded the $164.00 I paid for my seats to and back from London, I was staying where I was. She stated I could call customer service and they would handle it. Needless to say, she walked away defeated and I kept my seat. It’s not my fault the couple didn’t reserve seats together. With a packed flight you get what you get.

    1. Johnny Jet|

      Good for you

  36. c m wilson|

    dear Johnny Jet,
    it is my understanding that for identification and tracing purposes in case like pandemics and serious aviation or other accidents/incidents, passengers are to remain in their assigned seats;
    in fact prior to takeoff announcements are made to take the assigned seats in my experience;
    quite surprisingly to me, i have not seen any reference made to this “reason” in the comments nor in your own remarks.

  37. KFEvans|

    One positive story and one crazy one. First, when I was traveling in my USAF uniform, they asked if I would be interested in moving to first class and travel with an unaccompanied minor. Of course, I said yes. It was my one and only time to travel in first class. On other occasions when flying alone, I found myself in the middle seat between a married couple who hoped the seat would remain vacant. Usually, 1 would move and it didn’t matter whether I had the window or aisle seat. However, in one case the couple wanted to keep their seats (their choice) and I spent the entire flight between them. It was a bit awkward, but we all survived and arrived safely at our destination.

  38. Yana PerekrestovaRodrigues|

    Unfortunately although I fully empathize with the family or the parent, I have very long legs and a strong fear of flying, which makes it worse when I can’t get enough time off to be able to take a train instead. So I pick my seats exceptionally carefully and although I do understand the hassle, I’m not moving seats.

  39. cjoy|

    I really wish the airlines would go back to once you pay for a ticket and choose your seat, that is it. If they want you to pay more for a certain seat, then say that when you are booking the ticket! I flew with my granddaughter recently, (13 and going through serious emotional issues). I did book well in advance and paid extra to sit together and we were still separated! I had no choice but to ask if anyone was willing to switch with me, (she is extremely shy and was already near tears thinking she was going to have to sit with strangers for 2 hours. I still say blessings for the 2 people that quickly agreed to change seats. No one would have to go thru any of this if the airlines would quit trying to gouge their customers for every little penny in their pockets.

  40. cjoy|

    I have given up my seat for a disabled person and after I had foot surgery, I was the disabled person on the plane. It was quite humbling having to wait for a wheelchair and then be pushed around the airport and get left at the gate, waiting in a line of wheelchairs to get boarded.

  41. Malcolm|

    What do you do in the situation where you have paid for your seats, only for the crewe to tell you that you cannot sit there because they wish to leave that row free “in case of emergency” (it was the last row)
    Crewe procede to use that row to sit on and gave a rest during the flight.

    A complaint will be going in to Wizz air, but what are our rights?

    1. Johnny Jet|

      A lot of airlines block the back row of seats for the flight attendants. I don’t think there’s much you can do

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