When Is It OK to Move to an Empty Airplane Seat—and When Is It Not?

Empty seats on an airplane are precious and tempting real estate. But what’s the etiquette around nabbing one?

Rows of empty purple airplane seats, viewed from center aisle

When the door closes, talk to a flight attendant about moving seats.

Photo by JC Gellidon/Unsplash

Consider yourself fortunate if your next flight has an extra open seat. Over the past several years, U.S. carriers have been able to fill a vast majority of their planes—especially in premium cabins. According to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation, domestic airlines in 2023 had an 81 percent load factor, a metric that measures the ratio of available seats to the number of actual passengers.

Still, there will certainly be instances in which a flight has an extra empty seat, additional row, or even a whole section of a plane unoccupied—and passengers will eye it hungrily. Are those extra seats up for grabs? If so, when is it fair game to take one? And who gets dibs? Here’s our mini guide to the do’s and don’ts of moving into empty seats and how to sit responsibly.

Wait for the right moment

Imagine this scenario: You’re boarding a flight and find yourself wedged in the middle seat between two passengers. At the same time, you notice that several rows remain empty mere minutes from the end of boarding time. Before shuffling to a new row, however, it’s important to wait for the boarding process to be fully complete, says Stella Shon, a consumer travel expert for Upgraded Points.

“Between last-minute connecting passengers, nonrevenue airline employees and their companions who are on standby, and the need for cabin crew to move passengers around for weight and balance reasons, nothing is guaranteed until that boarding door closes or in some cases, until you’ve already taken off,” says Shon.

Not all seats are up for grabs

These days, most U.S. carriers (except for Southwest Airlines, which follows an open seating policy) charge for a variety of economy seat assignments. Those upcharges can be added to seats with extra legroom or, on occasion, aisle or window positions. A row toward the front of the cabin might command an extra charge, too. American Airlines, for instance, calls these “preferred seats.”

“The best rule of thumb is to check with the flight attendant before making any moves, because they’ll have the final say once the boarding door closes,” Shon says.

For example, the Comfort+ cabin on Delta Air Lines, typically located immediately behind the first- or business-class section of the aircraft, includes such niceties as additional legroom and complimentary alcoholic beverages. Shon notes that because of the often substantial price difference between cabins, as well as a formal upgrade procedure for elites, passengers generally would not be allowed to simply move up if a seat was open.

The empty middle seat conundrum

While an empty middle seat in a row of three is a sought-after commodity, there should also be a mutual understanding between the two passengers. Start with some basic common courtesy, says Juan Ruiz, a frequent flier and cofounder of travel concierge service JetBetter.

“Perhaps acknowledge that the empty seat is a shared perk and put down the tray table to use between the both of you when in-flight service begins,” says Ruiz.

Keep in mind that a traveler may have intentionally purchased two or more seats together for additional comfort. Obviously, in that case, the extra seat isn’t meant to be shared and that space should be respected.

Finally, Ruiz offers this small nugget of advice: “Though it’s not guaranteed,” he says, “if you’re traveling with a companion and want the added room from an empty middle seat, book the aisle and window seats and hope that the position in between doesn’t get selected.” Just don’t get upset if you end up having to sit with a stranger in the middle.

Chris Dong is a freelance travel writer and editor with a focus on timely travel trends, points and miles, hot new hotels, and all things that go (he’s a proud aviation geek and transit nerd).
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