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Travel Etiquette: Who Gets the Middle Seat Armrests?

Dec. 13, 2017
7 min read
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Welcome to Travel Etiquette, a new TPG column that explores the fragile social contracts and the delicate dos and don’ts of travel. Have an opinion or suggestion for a future subject? Sound off in the comments below.

When an argument between two lawyers onboard a London to Malaga flight earlier this year got heated, the crew almost turned the plane around. Insults were hurled and lawsuits threatened, but luckily the argument ended with laughter and applause from other passengers as the petty cause of the fight came to light: They were bickering over who gets to use the armrest.

The right to armrest use is an all-too-common dilemma today, as seat sizes slim and cabin configurations grow dense, and simply swapping seats isn't always an option. So who is entitled to what personal seat space, exactly, and how can a passenger exercise their right to an armrest? Here's what the experts say.

The flight attendant's take:

"I one hundred percent believe the middle seat has the right to both armrests," says Jacqueline Marie, a flight attendant for a major US carrier. "I view the armrests as boundary lines but, shockingly, as a flight attendant I have never been asked to fix a dispute regarding seat space. But you know the sad thing? I honestly feel like many of those who get stuck in the middle just hope for a peaceful flight and they avoid confrontation, even if it means they will not be as comfortable."

The idea of armrests as signifying boundaries for passengers is also in play onboard Royal Jordanian Airlines. On a recent round-trip between Detroit and Amman on a Boeing 787 Dreamliner, I noticed from my seat in the last row that most passengers were assigned based on traveling party or gender. For example, women traveling solo or with other women were assigned in rows with women seatmates, men were seated in rows with other men and families were nearby other families. Advance seat selection is rarely an option given on RJ's long-haul routes, but when I was able to view the seat map on the Amman-Detroit leg, I noted that many middle seats were blocked. These ended up separating male and female passengers who did not know each other, and chatting with the flight attendants in the galley confirmed that seat assignments on flights with availability can be done with respect to gender.

Illustration by Anthony Calvert for The Points Guy
Illustration by Anthony Calvert for The Points Guy

The designer's take:

"At the moment, economy class seats are treated equally in terms of space," says Daniel Baron, CEO of LIFT Strategic Design, a Tokyo-based design studio specializing in airline brand design, cabin design and customer experience development. LIFT has planned interiors for the likes of Philippine Airlines, HK Express, and China Airlines. Design firms like LIFT can bat around revolutionary seating ideas all day long but, as Baron notes, "typically the cost of modifying the structure of catalog seats is prohibitively expensive" and big ideas are passed over in favor of those that make the most financial sense.

As for Baron's thoughts on armrest concepts that stack or carve one armrest to create two, such as the "Paperclip Armrest," and seating solutions that allow for adjustability, like Boeing's own patent, he infers that we shouldn't hold our breath: "The concepts are all interesting and it would be fantastic to see one realized," says Baron. "But two issues come to mind: the constant focus for the airline, via the seat vendor, is on weight reduction. Anything that added a significant amount of weight to the seat or complexity for maintenance would likely be rejected. The other point is that any design would still require to lift up the armrest for A) ancillary revenue from passengers willing to pay for three seats, B) couples and families traveling together, C) larger passengers who need additional space and D) solo passengers who rejoice when they just get lucky and can go horizontal."

If any changes to armrests are to come, they'll more than likely follow the example of Southwest Airlines who, earlier this year, announced new B/E Aerospace–produced economy seats touted to be the "widest in their class." Press releases proclaimed a gain of 0.7 inches per seat, but where was that space coming from when the airline's Boeing 737s weren't getting any wider? The answer was in a sly manipulation of the facts. The seats wouldn't be growing so much as the armrests would be shrinking. Slimmer armrests may give your hips a little extra breathing room, but they also mean less space for, you know, resting your arms.

Illustration by Anthony Calvert for The Points Guy
Illustration by Anthony Calvert for The Points Guy

The passenger's take:

Scotland-based frequent flyer Nikolaus Sennhauser faced a bleak situation this week. His original itinerary to Thailand on Lufthansa was canceled and refunded by the airline at the last minute, and the only suitable available option left was rebooking onto Emirates and accepting a middle seat.

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"Can't remember the last time I sat in the centre," he tweeted from the plane.

Commenting to The Points Guy after arriving to Bangkok, Sennhauser shared his position on the fight for armrests: "My rule is that if I ever have the middle seat, I take both armrests. In general I always pay to get the seats I want. For me it’s worth the money."

Sennhauser's rule is shared by many economy class travelers, and it's one that was echoed repeatedly in comments on an October 2016 YouTube video, taken when middle seat passenger Andy Slamans filmed himself forcibly "reclaiming" an armrest during a flight. Slamans swiftly bumped his seat mate's forearm from the middle armrest while feigning sleep, and the video went viral, with responses hailing Slamans as "a literal god" and "an American hero."

Commenters also quoted a monologue by Australian stand-up comedian Jim Jefferies: "When you're on an airplane, there's a thing called 'plane etiquette,' and it goes like this. Window gets an armrest and a wall. Middle gets two armrests. Aisle gets an armrest and a little bit of extra leg[room]. We're not f*cking animals. We live in a society."

There may be no fine print on your ticket that delineates the seat real estate to which you are entitled during a flight, but popular opinion holds that the middle passenger is the one most entitled to occupy both center armrests. If you ever face a situation like that of Slamans, where the window or aisle passenger is encroaching on your middle armrests, we suggest sweetly smiling and asking if — since they so enjoy using the center armrest — would they then mind switching to the center seat? Sometimes bringing attention to the issue is enough to enact a peaceful resolution or, at the very least, stun them with the question for a second — just long enough to swoop in for the steal with your arm.

Feature illustration by Anthony Calvert for The Points Guy

Featured image by Illustration by Anthony Calvert for The Points Guy