Seat kidnapping is a term I’d never heard of or even knew existed until recently but sadly, it’s now a thing. I first heard of people stealing other travelers’ assigned seats when my friend, a well-respected and known travel writer, Benet Wilson (aka Aunt Benet or ‘the Queen’, which aviation geeks call her), described a Southwest Airlines incident on her personal Facebook page. RELATED: Taylor Swift’s Clever Southwest Airlines Tip For Keeping the Seat Next to You Empty

Benet gave me permission to reprint it here: “Y’all! I have a new twist on the airline seat thing. I’m in my aisle seat and a man asked if he could sit in the window seat. I got up and stepped back so he could get in. Suddenly this dude plops in my aisle seat. I tell him that I’m actually sitting there (yes, my bag was under the seat). He moved my bag and said the middle seat was free. Before I could say anything, window seat dude tells him that I moved from my seat to let him in. He said tough luck. Window dude called the flight attendant before I had a chance. I said hi to her when I boarded and she complimented my T-shirts and Southwest earrings. She looked him dead in his eye and told him that he needed to move before she called the pilot. He sputtered that I moved, but window dude and the flight attendant both told he needed to move-quickly. He did and I’m now comfy in my aisle seat. #winning”

I don’t know about you but this made my blood boil. I can tell you if this happened to me, I would not have been as polite or calm as Benet. For someone to have the gall to do this says so much about the kind of person they are. Fortunately, Benet had a seatmate who witnessed what happened and stuck up for her, as well as the flight attendant. But what would have happened if no one had seen and it was simply one person’s word against another’s? Perhaps that’s what the rude passenger was banking on.

Benet’s incident happened back in April and I thought it was just a wild one-off so I didn’t write about. But I’ve heard of other incidents like this happen on Southwest Airlines as well since they don’t assign seats. It’s open seating, so first come first serve, which is why there’s been a huge uptick in passengers who pretend to need a wheelchair to board their flights but miraculously walk off the plane on two perfectly functioning legs. That’s another story.

RELATED: Hilarious Video: How to Keep the Seat Next to You Empty on Southwest Airlines or On a Bus or Train

On an airline that does assign seats, Benet wouldn’t have needed anyone to witness the incident because your seat assignment is on your ticket. But there have been plenty of cases where people still try to sit in seats that aren’t their own – especially ones that cost more because they have more legroom. I’ve boarded the aircraft to find someone sitting in my seat many times, including an A-list celebrity who pretty much begged me to give her my window seat. I did.

I also had someone steal our seats on the ferry to Catalina. I didn’t know it until after we got off, when my wife said she had all four seats for us on the upper back deck when a couple just sat down in two of them. The polite Canadian in my wife didn’t say anything so she sat inside with my daughter. I was downstairs dealing with our checked bags and figured she had been too slow to secure the best seats.

But the inspiration for this article and headline came from a story I read yesterday in the South Morning China Post about a woman in China who refused to give up a train seat booked by another passenger. According to the article, “The woman had only paid for a standing ticket but wanted to sit beside her husband, so she took the seat of another passenger. When that passenger boarded the train, the woman refused to move. “We are married. We already have a marriage certificate. I already have a child with him,” the woman says in the video. The other passenger replied: “What does your marriage have to do with me?””

The comment that struck me was this one: “High-speed trains in China have recently seen numerous cases of so-called “seat kidnapping”.” That’s where we’re at people.

I’ve had people sitting in my seat on trains too including a few weeks ago when traveling between Rome and Napoli but the Americans didn’t realize and apologized. Often, it’s an innocent mistake and I’ve been on the opposite end of it as well.

If you’ve had someone deliberately kidnap your seat, leave a comment. What happened and what did you do? The best thing to do is to remain calm and call the flight attendant or train conductor over and let them know. If you have a seat assignment you really don’t have to worry about it. If you’re flying an airline that doesn’t assign seats, then you better hope someone saw since it’s your word against theirs. 

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25 Comments On "Seat Kidnapping: I Can’t Believe it’s a Thing - Here’s What to Do If it Happens to You While Traveling"
  1. Christian|

    Pretty tasteless stuff but the first I’ve heard of it.

  2. Sandy McKeith|

    I saw the same thing on a Southwest flight. The flight I boarded already had passengers (since it was a connection from somewhere else). I took an aisle seat and the aisle seat opposite mine was empty except for luggage underneath the seat. A passenger boarded and tried to sit in that aisle seat. The middle and window seats were occupied and one of those passengers said the seat was occupied and the person was in the restroom at the back of the plane.

    This man sat down in the seat and stayed there. Shortly thereafter the person who had been in the seat returned from the restroom and said it was his seat and he had been in on the previous flight. The new passenger refused to move and kept saying if it’s empty when he boarded it’s available.

    Eventually after much raising of voices and getting the flight attendant to intervene, the new passenger was told he had to move. To everyone’s amusement, by the time this was all said and done the only seats left were middle seats in the back of the plane. Karma!

  3. Mo|

    It’s not exactly the same, but on our spring flights to Europe on Level Airlines (Vueling’s discount airline) the airline itself stole – resold I guess – our seats. I had purchased upgraded seats months before our flight and (conveniently) every time I tried to print our boarding passes, there was an error and the message said get the boarding passes at the airport. So we did (I had screen caps of the assigned seats and cost) and of course our seats had been changed. After fussing at the counter we got seats reassigned, but not together. Same thing happened on the return – I sat next to the guy who apparently was the one who must have been resold ‘my’ seat. I was very tempted to ask him when he bought his seat but I refrained. We did complain and I got $213 back to my credit card, but it was really frustrating. Other than that, the flight and service were very good.

  4. Nancy Albertson|

    Full flight out of DC to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 12/31/2015. Ethiopian Air 767. I get to my assigned aisle seat to find a woman already settled in. I told her she was in my seat. She politely told me she’d traded seats with me to sit next to her sister. I asked where her seat was. She gave her seat #, which was a middle seat on left side of plane. I told her I didn’t want to trade, and that I wanted the seat I’d chosen and paid for. Since it was a long flight, and I’m tall, I wanted an aisle seat to stretch my legs. It took a flight attendant to tell the woman in my seat that she had to move.

    The woman’s sister made me pay for not trading seats during the flight. She would put her personal items on my seat if I got up to use the restroom, push my arm off of the arm rest we shared if she wanted to use it, push her carry on bag onto my feet to free up floor space at her seat. It took interventions several more times from flight attendants during the flight. Long flight made more difficult by woman next to me.

  5. Walter J Shwe|

    I call this stealing or thieving, not kidnapping. It’s unquestionably a reprehensible and dishonest practice. I would have shouted at the man in no uncertain terms to move immediately.

  6. Vivian speegle|

    Sunday a week ago, my husband and I boarded a train from Bologna to Rome. When I sat down in my seat there was a man seating across in my husband’s seat. We are Americans and speak no Italian. I told the man he was in my husband’s seat. He pointed to a little 2 year old boy in the seat next to him and mumbled for my husband to find another seat. I told him if he hadn’t bought a ticket for the boy, that the boy had to sit in his lap. He finally got up and my husband started to sit down and the man started poking my husband with his finger. The conductor was walking by and my husband told him that the man was poking him. He man said he wasn’t going far and would be getting off soon. He finally sat down in the seat next to my husband with the boy in his lap and got off the train in Rome where we did.

  7. Anonymous|

    Several years ago as a United 1K traveler, I boarded near the front of the line. I women of substantial size was sitting in both hers and my seats. I could not have sat down even if I had wanted to. I reversed direction and spoke to the flight attendant. She took a look, returned and responded that this was a job for the captain. He returned with the passenger in tow and escorted her from the full flight.

    All went smoothly. I assume she assumed she might get away not having a seat-mate, but on a full flight that didn’t work out.

  8. ajk|

    This is the first I’ve heard of this. I cannot believe that someone would do something so brazenly obnoxious and antagonistic. Plus if they succeeded then they would have to sit next to that person the entire flight. I guess the only thing to do to protect yourself is to take a selfy of you in the seat right away, so there is proof that the other person is lying. If this happened to me and I “lost” my aisle seat, there would definitely be some accidental “spillage” during the beverage service.

  9. Marilyn B|

    Not something new. Ours was in May 1993 on a train from Florence to Venice. This was before the internet was available to the general public (I got early access as a computer industry employee in 1994). Our travel agent booked our train tickets for us, probably with RailEurope. They were printed and had seat assignments.

    When we got to our seats, the seating arrangement was a group of 6 seats, 3 each facing each other. One of the seats was occupied by an Italian woman. There were 3 very rude Americans (1 female, 2 males) there, 2 in our seats. They refused to move. They actually had tickets in a different class of service. Two other nice American tourists showed up for 2 of the other seats. An argument ensued. They finally decided to move. The woman stepped very hard on my foot. One of the men threw a punch at my husband, who was a trained martial artist. Instinctively his arm went up to block the punch and it caught the offender on his lip, causing it to bleed slightly. They left, we sat back, thanked the Italian woman and discussed the incident with the other American couple. But the next thing we knew the conductor was there telling us that the dude wanted to press charges and they will call the police at the next stop. The Italian woman had a very long conversation with the conductor, and while I didn’t speak Italian, I knew that she was telling the conductor that they were lying about what happened and they knew their tickets were not for these seats.
    Anyway, the police came. Once they told the dude that they would have to be in Italy for a trial in the future, they backed off and that was the end. The conductor came back to tell us that next time we have problems and get in a scuffle, just do it in Yugoslavia. I started laughing and I told him, “No, that’s my grandmother’s country” (now it’s Slovenia) and everyone had a good laugh. We ran into the other nice American couple in a museum a couple of days later and had another good laugh. But when we went to leave Italy via the Milan airport, my husband was very apprehensive until we cleared the flight boarding, just in case his passport was flagged for the incident.
    This is still one of our more vivid travel recollections. The crazy things that you just don’t forget.

  10. Mac|

    I had a seat kidnapped by American Airlines. My wife and I both like seats on the aisle, so I try to book such seats in the same row. I had a months-long reservation, nothing changed, until the last minute (this was several years ago, when we still used printed boarding passes). I did not notice the change until we got to our seats; they moved my wife from the aisle to a center seat. My guess is that the man now sitting in her previously reserved seat was affiliated with the Airline. I was furious. I gave my wife the aisle seat, and took the center seat. I am not ashamed to say, that I may have set the record for getting in and out of a seat during the 4 hour flight, and the man who took her seat was none to happy with me. Tough. So, my advice is, check your seat reservation up to the last very minute. Don’t let them friggin’ kidnap yours.

  11. Jen|

    For the ferry, I don’t think it’s appropriate to “seat” without your entire party or entire party minus 1. It happens in open seating theaters and is frustrating for all guests who arrive on time together.

  12. Ron|

    It’s sad to see society has digressed. How about taking a selfie with you in the seat. Make sure the picture contains you and the aisle if the aisle seat is what you want.

  13. Russell|

    This is also a “thing” in movie theaters that now assign seats.
    A man got beat up by a seat “thief” when he showed his tickets with seat numbers. They took off, but everything was captured on video. (yes, theaters have IR cameras watching the audiences.)

  14. Cathie Carroll|

    3 years ago on a train from Brussels to Paris a man was seated in my assigned seat and working on a laptop. When I pointed out his error, politely, he said “so?”.
    I repeated that it was my seat and he asked me with great disdain, “do you want me to move?”
    I told him yes. He glared and slowly gathered his things and moved to the aisle seat.

    I think he meant to intimidate me and make me uncomfortable, but it was my first high speed train ride and I wanted my window seat.

  15. MD Kennedy|

    Had this happen on a tour bus in Greece – you pick your seats (first come first serve) for the length of the tour (in this case 5 days). My husband and I put our hats, tour book, umbrella and water bottles in the seat pockets in front and were fine and dandy for the first two days. On the third day, we got on the bus and low and behold two other tourists (European) had decided they liked our seats better so just took them. When we politely told them they had mistakenly taken our seats, they just ignored us. And then ignored us again. So, I put on my “loud American” hat and told them in a firm yet loud voice that they were sitting in our seats and would have to move. The bus went silent and everyone was staring at them and guess what, they moved! And everyone on the bus (I was the sole American) applauded and later several told me that they never would have been able to be so “pushy” but that I did the right thing. I know we’re not supposed to be loud Americans, but sometimes it is a nice tool to have in your back pocket. You wouldn’t believe the respect and friendliness we received from our other tour buddies for the remainder of the trip! And the tour guide was so relieved he didn’t have to get in the middle of what could have been a nasty scene.

  16. BJ|

    We had first class seats on a train from Lucca to Rome but when we got to the compartment two ladies and two older Italian men were in our seats. As my one friend spoke some Italian they claimed not to understand. Finally the young Italian woman spoke up and told them to move. We sat down and she explained that people buy the cheap seats but sit in the first class seats then claim it’s theirs. We thanked her and she gave us good advice as when we got to the Rome station go out the side door not the big line out front and we will get a taxi. Of course we did have a nicely dressed man approach us with a cab for hire which we knew was a scam and forcefully told no, but that’s another story.

  17. Gayle|

    My husband and I had the exit row seats many years ago and a guy jumped in mine and would not budge untilI got the flight attendant involved. She asked to see his boarding pass and politely told him to move. He fussed and fumed but finally got up. It was so embarrassing!! That was at least 15 years ago so apparently seat theft is not a new practice.

  18. Bessie Jacinto|

    My husband were on a train in France years ago and had reserved two seats next to each other only to find a French woman in my seat who refused to move. When the other passengers heard her refusal, more than two French passengers told her to move because it was my assigned seat and it was next to my husband’s. That much I understood with my limited French. The middle-aged woman eventually left when she heard a growing chorus saying so and I at least gave a fervent “Merci” to everyone else.

  19. Anonymous|


  20. Michele Herrmann|

    I’ve had people automatically sit in my seat thinking that I’d switch with no complaints. Especially couples. Thank you for bringing this up and making me realize I can push back on this.

  21. Anonymous|

    On a flight to Morocco my husband and I got to our seats to see a man sitting in my window seat. He essentially ignored us and we figured there was a language barrier. So my husband sat next to him and I took the aisle, giving him evil eye. He eventually spoke in limited English to my husband that he wasn’t used to flying. So I’m that case I forgave him.

  22. Alyssa|

    This is really common when you book assigned seats on train tickets in Europe but everyone just sits where they want and tells you to get lost when you tell them they’re in your seat. I paid extra for an assigned seat on a train to the Copenhagen airport, but a family was seated in the seat I had purchased. There was a lack of seats, so I was stuck standing for about 45 minutes since I had a lot of luggage and had no idea what to do. There’s a lack of train attendants to help, and when one finally walked down the aisle and I showed them my ticket, they looked at me like I was crazy to make one member of a family get out of their seat. I asked for a refund and they also looked at me like I was crazy. For all the hype that European trains are so much better than Amtrak, I can guarantee Amtrak attendants would kick out people who hadn’t paid for Business class tickets.

    1. Johnny Jet|

      Interesting. I had something similar happen to me in Italy

  23. K. Reddy|

    Regarding wheelchair users @ airports & early boarding; I do realize some may be deceitful/outright lying about being disabled for personal gain; but OLEASE realize not all disabilities are visible; example cancer, arthritis & mental health disorders. Same with service dogs; one may not look like they need this for PTSD as it is not a visible disorder like blindness; but equal in legitinitizing the benefits & use of service animal. Do some people lie about that; certainly; but please do not judge a wheelchair user or a service animal user based on that! Thank you.

    1. Johnny Jet|

      Thanks for bringing this to my attention. I totally agree with you. My point was that people use a wheelchair to get on the plane but they don’t use it when they get off even if it’s a long walk.

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