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Why You Should Think Twice Before Moving to That Empty Airplane Seat

By Bennett Kleinman
Read time: 3 minutes

If you’re on an airplane and notice an unoccupied row where you’d be able to stretch out and enjoy the rest of the flight in comfort, do you get up and move? Are you even allowed to switch seats? With all of the strict rules and regulations regarding airplane travel, you may be wondering if it’s okay to move to an empty seat on a plane. So, we took a look at the facts to find out.

Don’t Move Without Asking

Flight attendant checking on passengers
Credit: Anchiy/ E+ via Getty Images 

Before standing up and switching seats, you should always check with the flight attendant first, for a number of reasons. Before takeoff, the pilots perform a weight and balance check to make sure that weight is properly distributed in the cabin. While this is less of a concern on large commercial airliners, an unbalanced cabin could create problems for smaller ones. So, if you do notice an empty seat, it may have been left open intentionally to ensure proper weight distribution and a safe takeoff. Don’t just assume it’s there for the taking until you ask a staff member.

Another reason why certain seats may remain empty is for members of the cabin crew. Often, rows toward the back of the plane are left intentionally empty so that flight attendants can sit comfortably during their break periods. With these factors in mind, be sure to flag down a flight attendant before switching seats. If you’re polite, many flight attendants will be happy to accommodate your request so long as there are no valid reasons not to.

Accept Being Told “No”

Flight attendants greeting boarding passengers
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It’s the job of flight attendants to enforce the policies of each airline, which may include strict rules that prevent passengers from switching seats. Some airlines charge more for specific seat selections, and so switching locations would be unfair to other travelers who paid an extra fee. In the event you’re told that switching seats isn’t feasible, you’ll need to be prepared to accept the answer for what it is. 

Don’t Switch Before Takeoff

Passenger holding cell phone looking out airplane window
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You never know if additional passengers will board the airplane at the last minute, so it’s best not to jump the gun and move too early. From people waiting on standby to travelers sprinting across the terminal to make their connection, some passengers board the plane seconds before the door closes. This is why you should always wait until the boarding process is complete before investigating any empty seat options that may be available.

Know What’s Off Limits

View of airplane cabin looking from back to front
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From first class to basic economy, the cost of a plane ticket can vary substantially. This is true even within the economy section, as some seats may cost more than others due to a preferable location toward the front or an extra couple inches of legroom. If you’re looking to move locations, a good rule of thumb is to look over your shoulder toward the back of the aircraft cabin. Plus, an empty row in the back of economy may be a whole lot more comfortable than a crowded section toward the front.

Consider the Comfort of Other Passengers

Passengers seated in airplane row
Credit: Viktor Cvetkovic/ E+ via Getty Images 

If you see an empty seat next to another passenger, they’re probably thrilled about the fact that they can stretch out and enjoy their flight. So, try to keep a comfortable distance between yourself and others if you choose to move seats. This tip also applies to situations where you could slide over one seat to create room between yourself and another passenger. Let’s say you’re in the middle of a three-seat row, and the seat by the window is unoccupied. You shouldn’t expect any trouble for sliding over in the same row, and your seatmate will likely be thrilled about the additional space you’ve created.

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