There’s always one: What to do when someone asks to sit next to you on an empty plane

Sep 5, 2020

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Before flying home — on Southwest Airlines, of course — on Aug. 25, it had been 184 days since my last flight, on Royal Air Maroc. So as a longtime flyer and true aviation geek, I was excited for my flight from San Antonio International Airport (SAT) to Baltimore/Washington Thurgood Marshall International Airport (BWI).

Photo by Travel_with_me/Shutterstock)
(Photo by Travel_with_me/Shutterstock)

I checked in for my flight, depositing my two free bags with a lonely skycap and went through an eerily empty TSA checkpoint (I used PreCheck only because I wanted to keep my shoes on and my laptops in my backpack). Once past security, I went to the only coffee shop in Terminal A — Merit, a local brand that’s popular in San Antonio, Austin and Dallas (longtime concessions Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts are now closed).

Once at the gate, I was bombarded with announcements about wearing a mask onboard the flight. We also got the usual boarding announcement (albeit Southwest now boards passengers by A, B and C in groups of 10). We also got the news that our 143-seat Boeing 737-700 jet only had 32 of us boarding. Considering what the pandemic has done to airline flights, I wasn’t surprised, but I was still happy to hear it.

Southwest, along with Delta and JetBlue, are blocking middle seats at least through the end of October. But with only 32 passengers, I was happy to know that it would allow for plenty of social distancing on my flight home to Baltimore. But then a very odd thing happened.

Related: 27 years in the biz: These are the 6 passenger types I hate getting stuck next to on a plane

I’m a big fan of aisle seats because I’m slightly claustrophobic, and I like sitting toward the front of the plane. With my Southwest A-List status, I’m pretty much guaranteed my seat of choice. I boarded and settled into my seat. After a few minutes, a woman stopped at my row. I expected her to take the empty seats opposite of me, but no.

The woman looked at me and asked, “May I sit in that window seat?” I seriously thought I heard her wrong while she was speaking through her mask. I said, “Pardon me?” She repeated her request to sit in the window seat in my row. I informed her that the plane was wide-open, so she could sit where she wanted. But to my surprise, she asked again if she could sit in the window seat — next to me.

Related: The unwritten rules of flying in the middle seat

(Photo by Benét J. Wilson/The Points Guy

I have one of those faces where people think it’s OK to ask me to switch seats — especially from people who don’t like their middle seat. I’m Facebook famous among my friends for recounting all the times I’ve been asked on multiple airlines for my seat. I’ll switch for two reasons — helping a family with small children or if the seat I’m switching to is also an aisle seat. Otherwise it’s a hard no. But I digress.

I gave her a hard no. Instead of moving on, she asked me why. I explained that I was social distancing, and that I was glad to be on a flight that allowed for this, especially considering that there were only 32 people onboard. She stood and looked at me for another 20 seconds or so, then thankfully moved on.

Related: As travel reopens, here’s what it’s like flying in the US right now

As much as I love to fly, I’ll admit I was nervous about my first pandemic flight. I was prepared with extra masks, disinfectant wipes, hand sanitizers and my own in-flight snacks. The flight crew was very professional and the flight continued without any further incidents.

For the week ending Aug. 30, domestic air travel is down 67% year over year, according to trade group Airlines for America (A4A), with numbers slowly rising. I know there will come a time when I won’t be able to say no, as passenger traffic slowly rises. It means that on my next flight — whenever that may be — I’ll look at taking even more precautions, like wearing a face shield and bringing my own latex gloves, to ensure my safety as the pandemic rages on.

Related: Naomi Campbell’s preflight routine got a serious coronavirus upgrade

Featured photo by Benét J. Wilson/The Points Guy

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