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Welcome to Travel Etiquette, a 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. 

There may be no better feeling in the world — at least, for travelers flying in coach — than realizing you’re on an empty flight. Especially when the last remaining stragglers board, and the seat beside you remains unclaimed. It looks like you might not have to battle it out for those middle-seat armrests after all.

It’s easy to start fantasizing about all the ways you might use that extra middle seat: a storage space for your purse, or rather a footrest to help you doze. After all, that unbooked seat is yours now. Right?

Sharing is caring

As a general rule, yes. If the seat next to you is open, you can utilize it how you would like, according to United flight attendant Rhonda, although common courtesy dictates that you share it with whomever is sitting on the other end of your row. “Sharing is caring,” Rhonda told a TPG staff member. “That way, everyone wins.”

“Think of it as business [class] on a European narrow-body plane,” explained TPG Lounge member, Josh Lien. Travelers typically negotiate to split both the seat itself as well as the under-seat storage space for bags.

Stephanie Neuheardt, also a TPG Lounge member, shared her tried-and-true method for establishing the terms of empty seat usage. “I always start with, ‘Aren’t we lucky?’ [and] then I stick a Kindle or iPad on my ‘half’ of empty seat for takeoff. It’s also useful to put the tray down once we level off. I’ve had flight attendants put both our drinks on the empty seat’s tray. That’s always a good ‘shared space’ indicator.”

In some rare cases, your rowmate may not even want the extra seat space. In situations such as this, it’s fair to courteously ask him or her if they mind you using the space.

Unreasonable use of an empty seat

What’s not OK? Being disrespectful of your rowmate’s space, even — or especially — if they’ve graciously allowed you to use the entire seat.

On a recent flight, TPG Lounge member Amee Schwitters experienced a rowmate who totally took advantage of the empty-seat situation. “The guy sitting in the same row … thought it was an invitation to take his shoes off and put his feet on the seat,” Schwitters told TPG. “Unfortunately, the extra seat wasn’t enough for him, and he proceeded to tuck his toes under my leg multiple times.”

In some rare cases, physically occupying the space can be acceptable: but only if your rowmate is genuinely comfortable with the situation. “On my last flight, the woman [in] the window [seat] was pregnant,” said TPG Lounge member Tracy Antonioli. “So she put her feet up on it and went to sleep, and I was totally fine with that because she was growing a human — she deserved it.”

When the middle seat isn’t yours to share

Sometimes, however, you actually do not own the right to any part of the seat next to you, even if nobody else is sitting down. How come?

Some travelers will purchase two or more seats in economy, especially for longer flights where they don’t feel like dropping several thousand dollars for a single seat in business or first class. This travel hack is perfect for passengers who don’t mind economy class, but who would just prefer to have a little bit more space to themselves.

I’m a good-size guy,” said TPG Lounge member Frank Valentino, “and I always book the middle seat when traveling. My wife wants the window seat, so it works out great! Extra carry-on allowance, and no one next to me. Win-win.” (The additional baggage allowance, however, isn’t guaranteed with all airlines.) 

TPG Lounge member Bernadette Archibald witnessed this scenario on a recent flight, where an unaware traveler was incensed at not being able to share the middle seat with his or her rowmate, and called for a flight attendant referee. “The single-seat passenger pressed the call button to check, and was very embarrassed to learn that it was the case,” Archibald said of the overheard conversation. “The two-seat passenger just preferred two economy seats for around $1,800, rather than business class for $4,000.”

How to guarantee you get an empty middle seat

Like Valentino, many travelers book more than one seat under a single reservation. It’s not an uncommon strategy.

“One pass has your name, and the second pass has a variation of “Extra Seat [Last Name],” TPG Lounge member Lauriean Davis told TPG. It does, however, depend on the airline. “JetBlue makes this really easy,” Davis said. “I usually fly United and give a call after I have booked to make sure the seats [and] bookings are linked. I also go the extra step with United to let the gate agent know I have two seats, to ensure it’s not given away.”

Davis said that she also earns double miles with this practice, although the empty seat does not earn PQDs and PQMs. Fellow Lounge member Carl Cabrera stated that United’s ticketing format for empty seats is LASTNAME/EXST. “It goes through without issues if you book yourself on all United metal,” Cabrera said. “Otherwise, you have to call in if it’s a combination of United and [a] Star Alliance partner. ”

Though it’s not guaranteed, if you’re traveling with a friend or family member and want the added space from an empty middle seat, there’s a strategy you can try. Book the aisle and window seats, as opposed to two adjacent seats, in the hopes that (on a low-occupancy flight), a solo traveler will opt for another seat instead. This is especially effective on relatively empty Southwest flights, where passengers get to choose their seats at the time of boarding rather than at the time of booking.

The bottom line

Don’t forget that flight attendants reserve the right to move other passengers about the cabin as they see fit or necessary. So even if there’s an open seat next to you, there’s always a slight chance that it won’t be yours to utilize. “We don’t do it often,” Rhonda said, “but sometimes, it’s a necessity.”

At the end of the day, it’s important to remember that you paid for what you got: the seat that you’re sitting in. Anything else is a bonus. So if the middle seat is up for grabs, be grateful. And if it isn’t, it was never yours to begin with — unless you booked it, of course.

Featured photo by Shutterstock.

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