Economy class cabin seats KLM
The economy class cabin just as passengers were boarding the aircraft in Amsterdam. Photograph ©2014 by Brian Cohen.

Seat Swap Debate: What to Do When the Middle Seat Between Two Travel Companions is Assigned

tactic some savvy couples and companions who travel together employ pertaining to securing seat assignments aboard airplanes while booking their flight reservations is to select and reserve an aisle seat and a window seat when there are three seats in a row in the hopes that the middle seat will remain empty by the time the flight is scheduled to depart…

What to Do When the Middle Seat Between Two Travel Companions is Assigned?

…but more often than not, those middle seats are assigned to a completely unrelated person — which leaves at least four scenarios to occur as a result:

  • The unrelated passenger remains in the middle seat between the two travel companions; but then could be the recipient of potential interaction between the two travel companions which could interrupt the peaceful enjoyment of the flight to which the passenger of the middle seat is entitled
  • One travel companion could volunteer to switch his or her aisle seat with the passenger in the middle seat, allowing the two travel companions to sit together while the unrelated passenger sits in the aisle seat
  • One travel companion could volunteer to switch his or her window seat with the passenger in the middle seat, allowing the two travel companions to sit together while the unrelated passenger sits in the window seat
  • The passenger seated in the middle seat could request a seat elsewhere on the airplane from a member of the flight crew — if there is another seat available

The Latest Twist in the Seat Swap Debate

While swapping seats can yield positive results, the act of doing so — or attempting to do so — can potentially lead to confrontation.

“On a recent cruise trip, Mrs. Paplover and I had aisle/window seats with the hope that the middle would be empty”, posted FlyerTalk member Paplover. “Of course not, silly me. Anyway, there were no issues with trading our window with the person in the middle after asking if they wanted to switch. Much easier that way for all of us instead of keeping the original seats.”

FlyerTalk member MSPeconomist responded that “You were lucky that the middle person didn’t demand the aisle seat as a condition for a trade.”

According to Paplover, the aisle seat was not one of the choices for the person who was assigned the middle seat: “Either stay in middle or take the window was the unspoken part of the offer. My DW gets up several times during long flights so easy aisle access is essential. If no trade, I had window and she had aisle.”

When MSPeconomist replied “So much for offering the better seat as part of a proposed trade”, FlyerTalk member sethb opined: “Huh? Most people consider window better than middle. I certainly do, even though I prefer aisle.”

MSPeconomist retorted: “No, most prefer aisle to window. The OP had a window and an aisle but wanted to sit together. Proper form would have been to offer either the window or the aisle to the person in the middle and let the current middle seat occupant choose. To offer window or nothing seems mean spirited.”

The debate then ensues from there, becoming more heated in the process.


I can understand why two travel companions would want to find a row of three empty seats and select an aisle and a window while leaving the middle seat empty: a person booking a reservation on that flight after them would most likely not select the middle seat for a seat assignment if better seats were available; and if the aircraft is not completely booked with passengers, the middle seat has a chance of remaining empty — giving the two travel companions more room at no extra cost.

If I were one of the two travel companions and booked an aisle seat and a window seat, I would do so with the expectation that that middle seat will eventually be assigned, as it is a matter of maintaining perspective and managing my expectations realistically.

Should a person show up aboard the airplane and claim to be assigned to that middle seat, I would most likely offer my seat — wherever I happen to be sitting and depending with whom I was sitting — and take the middle seat, as I will most likely be engaged in conversation with that other person. I would think that that would result in a win-win situation…

…but there are some travel companions who would rather not sit together and preserve their assignments in the aisle seat and window seat — possibly creating a potentially uncomfortable environment for the person who winds up sitting in the middle seat.

Regardless of whether you are one of the travel companions or the unlucky person who winds up sitting in a middle seat between two travel companions, what would you do? Please comment and consider participating in the poll below. Thank you in advance.

[yop_poll id=”21″]

Photograph ©2014 by Brian Cohen.

  1. Sounds like they played a game of hoping the middle seat would remain open and lost. I think they just sit where they are assigned and next time book two next to each other like I do. Amazing how that leaves me seated next to my SO 100% of the time.

  2. Ten years ago, I tried booking a window and an aisle for me and my ex-wife on a very long flight from San Francisco to Auckland hoping that the middle seat would be unoccupied. Shortly before takeoff a young lady took the middle seat. She realized that we were together and asked if I (on the window) wanted to sit next to my ex-wife. I said no, not because I disliked her as much then as I do now, but because there was no way I would sit in the middle seat. After that flight I decided that I would never travel in coach on a long haul flight again. And I haven’t. But I would try that strategy again if I had to travel in coach. And my new wife would happily take the middle seat if we had to trade something.Because she’s great that way. But I would never give up the aisle for the window. I need to go pee too often

  3. When my spouse and I travel together we always take the aisle seats across from each other. Neither of us likes to be in the middle seat, and we both make very bad travelers when grumpy. Of course, we can’t look out the window, but I usually don’t care, and if wants to look out the window he can take the window seat, and we won’t talk any more than we have to out of respect for the middle seat person. Of course, if you pick the right plane with the right seating configuration or pay for the right class of service, you can avoid the dilemma all together, but that wasn’t the purpose of the post.

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