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Airplane Etiquette: Switching Seats + Who Gets the Armrests?

Airplane Etiquette: Switching Seats + Who Gets the Armrests?

Switching Seats: the Art of the Ask

We recently flew from Kona to San Francisco to visit family. It was only our second flight after Juliette turned two and officially needed to purchase her own seat with a full-fledged “child” fare (having graduated from the infant status reserved for the under-two set). My husband, who has recently been given United 1K status (hooray!), booked us three seats in the Economy Plus part of the plane.

The only problem: while my husband was able to secure a window and middle seat for me and Jules, he couldn’t sit next to us, so he picked a window seat one row in front of us. We crossed our fingers and hoped that the person seated next to me would be happy to switch and relieved at the prospect of not having to sit in the same row as a small child. But you never know. With airplane seats, people can get extremely territorial about their seat selections, and flying generally just doesn’t put most people in a good mood. (Unless you’re flying first or business class, of course. They’re generally really nice to you up there, and you never have to worry about the dreaded middle seat...).

If All Else Fails, Try Bribery (Maybe)

I remember having to sit apart from my husband (my fiancé at the time) on a Hawaiian Airlines redeye flight to Vegas when no one wanted to switch with us. We were going to Vegas to celebrate my Grandpa’s 88th birthday and to take engagement photos with Jasmine Star (hence the cover photo of this blog post). When I told Jasmine about our seatmates’ puzzling refusals to switch (they weren’t terrible seats we were offering), she was like “but did you offer them a cocktail first?” And really - it had never occurred to me to do that, but if you know Jasmine you know she’s some kind of genius, so I’ve put the idea in my back pocket for later.

Anyway, back to the present. Long story short: the man refused to switch his aisle seat next to me and Jules for a window seat one row in front of us. He mumbled something about having to get to his destination early and how he had to work on the flight, and I could tell that he would not be persuaded by a cocktail. Which, okay, fine – you have a right to refuse. You picked your seat fair and square. And some people straight up will never budge from their chosen seat. Why You Should Never Swap Seats on A Plane (CN Traveler).

Who Gets the Armrests, Anyway?

However – this is what really got me: The man immediately claimed two armrests: the one on the aisle, and the middle one as well. This is just wrong. It is rude, and it is wrong.  

All the experts are in agreement on this: the middle seat gets both armrests. Why the Middle Seat Should Get the Armrest (Conde Nast Traveler), Whose armrest is it, anyway? The unspoken etiquette of airline, bus and train travel (The Washington Post), Travel Etiquette: Who Gets the Middle Seat Armrests? (TPG).

The Middle Seat Gets Both Armrests

After all, the person in the window gets to control the window shade and has a wall to lean on, and the person seated in the aisle gets a little more legroom and the freedom to move about the cabin without having to inconvenience anyone else first.

In the case of our last United flight, the physical layout of the aircraft seats also implied that the armrest belonged to the person in the middle – it contained not only my seatback button, but my remote for my seatback TV, too. And his dumb elbows kept shutting off my movie. Ughhhh. Some people are so clueless.  

Did I say anything? Yes, but only after the third time the dude shut off my movie... I said “hey, you keep turning my movie off.” But I didn’t say “and the middle seat gets both armrests!” but that’s why I’m writing a post-flight blog on flight etiquette. Because that man was rude, and I want to save you from being that guy.

Bottom line: the middle seat is just The Worst, so if you’re lucky enough or planned far in advance enough to get the window or aisle, please be kind and give up the armrests to the poor soul stuck in the middle.


middle seat gets the armrests
Best Eats in Tokyo, Japan | a travelhappy guide

Best Eats in Tokyo, Japan | a travelhappy guide