Welcome to the Sidebar’s advice column, where Millennials, perennials, and Bicentennial Man alike sit down for a chat with our very own Muffle.  Her advice might be bad, but hey, at least someone’s listening.  Today we’re talking about when it’s okay to NOT switch seats with someone on a plane.

Hey Muffle,

I routinely take really long flights (like 16 hours long), and I’ve been wondering about something.  Pretty often, after I’ve boarded the plane, someone will ask me to switch seats with them.  Usually, it’s for a good reason, like they’re with family and want to sit together.  I’ll almost always say yes, but most of the time, I’ll move to their seat to find that I’ve given up my carefully selected aisle or window for a crappy middle seat over the wing.  It wouldn’t be so bad if it was just an hour or two, but for 16 hours, that makes a difference!

My question is, does saying no to these requests make me a jerk?  Does it depend?  How do I know?  Is it so wrong that I just want to sit in the seat I picked?

I. Wazerefurst

Man, there are so many variables here.  I feel like Not Being a Dick shouldn’t be this hard, but here we are.

The Hangover, Warner Bros. Pictures

So, basically, I see this as a utilitarian equation: you need to balance what you’re giving up against what the other person would gain.  The things you need to take into account are:

  • How long is the flight?
  • Were seats pre-assigned, or first-come, first serve?
  • Did you pay extra to get the seat you chose?
  • How good is the seat you’re giving up?
  • How bad is the seat they want you to take?
  • Why do they want to switch with you?
  • Will it be worse for everyone if you don’t switch?
  • How willing are you to be stuck on a plane with people who saw you be kind of an asshole for 16 hours?

That’s a lot to think about in the moments after someone asks you for a favor, (gazing at you; expectant, hopeful,) so you should probably have a game plan set up in advance, and a set of guidelines for reasons that make the cut, even if you’re switching from a window seat in the bulkhead to a middle seat right next to the bathroom.  Things that would make my version of that list are children, disabled folks, and the elderly who would otherwise be separated from their caretakers, and…  honestly, pretty much nothing else.  Maybe, maybe newlyweds on their way to their honeymoon who want to sit together, but they’d have to be pretty cute and very polite.  

There are other factors that tip the scales, certainly; if you got in line extra-early specifically to get the seat you snagged, for instance, or if you paid for it, then the person should really ask someone else, and I think it’s fair game to (politely, apologetically) say so.  It’s not like you’d wander up to first class and beg one of them to swap with you so you can stretch your big ol’ legs without paying for it; you’ve expended something of value that they didn’t, and that should be taken into account.  Plus, one would think that they had the same opportunity to get in line or pay as you did, and they didn’t, so… sorry, but I think I’m okay right here.

That being said, shit happens; maybe they got in a wreck on their way to the airport and nearly missed the flight, maybe they just lost everything in a house fire and didn’t have the cash for the better seat, maybe they just had rotten luck and a terrible day and it would really mean a lot to them if you would let them have your seat.  You’re never going to be wrong for doing something nice, and you should use your judgment as to whether the situation at hand is one that deserves some compassion and a little extra kindness.  There are worse things than a cramped airline seat, even for over half a day, and as my Nana would say, well, you’re just laying up treasure in Heaven.

Heaven better be all window seats, though, or I’ll be pissed.

Snark and tipples,


Got a question for Muffle? Send it to mufflemayi@gmail.com.