Are You Allowed to Swap Seats With a First Class Passenger?

Jun 4, 2019

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Seats in business class and first class are among the most-coveted on any flight. While many frequent flyers score premium seats through award deals or with complimentary upgrades, others are not so lucky. For most travelers, seats in premium cabins are just too expensive.

But what about those rare occasions where you and your traveling companion are ticketed in different cabins? Say, one of you is in coach and the other in business class. Occasionally, a passenger might even receive the rare offer from a premium-cabin companion: To swap seats at some point during the flight. But, as tempting as this offer may be, sharing a business- or first-class seat is not as clear-cut as one would hope. Here’s why.

Qatar's Qsuite business class on the A350-1000. (Photo by Zach Honig)
Qatar’s Qsuite business class on the A350-1000. (Photo by Zach Honig)

Domestic Airline Policies

Unfortunately, the answer to this question will often depend on the exact situation, passengers, crew and route. The major domestic US airlines TPG spoke with were vocal that special scenarios play out on every flight, and acknowledged that flight crews work to ensure the comfort and safety of all passengers onboard. That said, here are the official statements we received from carriers:

United Airlines: Not permitted

“At United, we want all of our customers to have a positive and relaxing journey with us. While we do not permit customers to switch seats between classes, due to the fairness and safety for other customers, we do recognize that unique situations arise and we encourage any customer needing special assistance to speak with a flight attendant. Our flight attendants have the ability to offer customers options and make exceptions when necessary.”

Delta Air Lines: Permitted to swap once

“Delta offers the opportunity for customers seated in different cabins to change seats once during the flight, with the change occurring after takeoff (once [the] seatbelt sign is extinguished) and before the start of the first meal service. As always, though, our flight attendants are empowered to use situational flexibility to make decisions in the interest of our customers.”

American Airlines: Not permitted

“Customers traveling in different cabins are not allowed to switch seats but in cases like an illness or a special need, customers can communicate and work directly with the Flight Attendants if they need to switch seats. And customers who are traveling in different cabins are allowed to visit with each other provided that they’re not interfering with any duties of the Flight Attendant, disrupting other customers or the seatbelt sign is on.”

First class passengers aboard a Delta A220
First class passengers aboard a Delta A220 (Photo by Darren Murph / The Points Guy)

Other Considerations

It’s important as a passenger to realize just how much is happening on board a commercial flight. It might seem like swapping seats with a friend seated in business or first class would be quick and easy, but there are other factors to consider. Though the decision to allow passengers to share a premium seat is ultimately up to the flight crew, here are a few details that should be taken into consideration.

Cabin Etiquette

This might not be a regulation or official policy, but it’s just as important. One of the main reasons a passenger pays for (or redeems miles for) for business or first class is to select a seat in a cabin that is more quiet and private.

When passengers spend time moving about the aircraft, especially switching seats in the premium cabins, it can be disruptive to those nearby. This is especially true on overnight flights. Even if the flight crew allows a passenger to switch seats with someone seated in a premium cabin, it’s important to consider those around you when changing seats.

Seating Restrictions

Certain seats may have have some seating requirements, such as those in the exit rows. Consult TPG‘s guide to exit-row seating restrictions for a full list of passenger qualifications. One such restriction is that no one under the age of 15 can sit in an exit row. Additionally, some airlines have unspoken rules in place prohibiting male passengers from sitting next to unaccompanied minors.

(Photo by Ethan Steinberg / The Points Guy)
Asiana Airlines First Class aboard an A380 (Image by Ethan Steinberg/The Points Guy)

Bottom Line

As tempting as it might be to switch seats with a generous friend or family member seated in business or first class, passengers are often technically prohibited from making such a move. Airlines have implemented policies to ensure the safety of all passengers as well as to promote fairness among all passengers. However, airlines are willing to make certain exceptions in certain situations. If you believe you are in a situation that might allow a member of the flight crew to make an exception, be sure to ask the flight crew before attempting to swap seats.

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Featured image by Ethan Steinberg / The Points Guy

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