How I Stuck Myself In a Middle Seat — Reader Mistake Story

Dec 31, 2018

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Today, I want to share a story from TPG reader JP, who tried (and failed) to get some extra room on a long economy flight:

I was traveling from Miami (MIA) to Sao Paulo (GRU) on American Airlines in the spring. American normally has two daily nonstop flights along this route, both in the evening on a Boeing 777. Being that it was low season, there were a lot of empty seats. Since I was traveling in economy, I decided to try to make my own “economy suite,” which I’ve done a couple times before on flights to Buenos Aires (also on American).

The economy section is mostly set up in a 3-4-3 configuration. There were no window rows available, but there were a fair number of middle rows with no seats taken toward the back of the plane. I normally prefer an aisle seat, but this time around I decided to take 40-E to discourage someone from taking 40-H and creating a suite of their own.

When I got to the airport, I checked the seat map again and everything looked normal. Boarding went smoothly, and I was really happy to have an entire row for myself.  Then the unthinkable happened: for some reason, dozens of passengers (I believe employees from one of the Miami-based cruise lines) were rerouted to my flight, which was suddenly jam packed. I found myself stuck in a middle seat for a nine-hour flight.

Had I been more conservative, I would’ve booked my regular aisle seat and flown more comfortably. Since then, I don’t gamble with seat assignments!

In an era of shrinking airline seats and fewer upgrade opportunities, an empty row (or even a free adjacent seat) is a coveted prize. Flyers use a variety of tactics (some of them underhanded) to try and secure that extra space, but as this story shows, those efforts can backfire spectacularly.

JP’s gamble hinged on the accuracy of the seat map, which can be unreliable. Some passengers don’t select seats in advance, so swaths of the cabin may appear unoccupied until close to boarding. In a similar situation, my advice would be to position yourself to score an empty row, but start off in a seat you’ll be content with if the original plan falls through. Otherwise, you may end up in a middle seat like JP, with little recourse short of asking someone to swap with you.

Seat selection is paramount on longer flights, especially if you’re flying economy. Even seats that seem attractive on a seat map may have features that make them unappealing, like limited recline or proximity to the lavatories and galley. For a more comfortable ride, it’s worth researching your seating options regardless of whether you’re vying for an “economy suite” or just trying to ensure a tolerable journey.

I appreciate this story, and I hope it can help other readers avoid making the same mistake. In appreciation for sharing this experience (and for allowing me to post it online), I’m sending JP a $200 airline gift card to enjoy on future travels, and I’d like to do the same for you. Please email your own travel mistake stories to, and put “Reader Mistake Story” in the subject line. Tell us how things went wrong, and (where applicable) how you made them right. Offer any wisdom you gained from the experience, and explain what the rest of us can do to avoid the same pitfalls.

Feel free to also submit your best travel success stories. If your story is published in either case, I’ll send you a gift to jump-start your next adventure. I look forward to hearing from you, and until then, I wish you a safe and mistake-free journey!

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