27A, 27A, 27A, I repeat to myself in my head while inching down the airplane aisle with my overstuffed duffle bag. It’s hot, I’m exhausted, and all I’m looking forward to is plopping into my seat and dozing off for the duration of the flight. My boyfriend lives across the country, and while I’ve gotten used to flying solo, the four-hour flights to visit him exhaust me. Finally, I make my way to row 27, but I can't relax into my window seat; someone else has already claimed it.
“Uh, hi, yeah, I think you’re in my sea—,” I begin to say, only to be cut off by the woman who seat-jacked me.
“Yes, I’m here with my kids,” she interrupts, “but you can sit there.” She gestures with a hand-wave to 26C, an aisle seat.
“I’m traveling with my kids,” she repeats, as if I can’t see the two oblivious preteens sitting next to her, totally engrossed in their phones. As if I can’t see she’s already made a home for herself in my assigned seat, neck pillow and all. As if I don’t understand what she’s really trying to say:
“My travel needs are more important than yours, so I’ve taken your seat, and that's that.”
I decided against starting an argument or calling over the busy flight attendant to resolve the issue, instead opting to roll my eyes and sit down in the aisle seat. I could have said “no” and advocated for myself, but I didn’t want to sit next to an angry mom for the flight; getting my ankle slammed by the beverage cart seemed preferable.
This isn’t the first time I've been a victim of nonconsensual airplane seat switching. Three times this year alone I’ve paid extra money to reserve a window seat in advance, and three times either a parent or child has taken it upon themselves to steal it. Since when did this become acceptable behavior?
Why are airplane seat switching requests becoming rampant and ruder?
I’m not the only victim of airplane seat switching; I’ve found a community of unseated victims on TikTok. My feed has become chock-full of solo flyers dishing about their run-ins with entitled seat thieves, including this now-viral story about a traveling mom who tried to take a woman’s seat for her newborn. There’s also a subreddit dedicated to stories about parents wanting to sit next to their children and couples who can’t bear to sit apart for a few hours.
So, what the heck is going on—are people legitimately getting ruder? Well, as it turns out, maybe. According to licensed clinical psychologist Aimee Daramus, PsyD, the idea that COVID-19 has had an impact on our manners, especially in regards to public travel, isn’t so far-fetched.
"We were conditioned to get distant from other people [during the pandemic]," says Dr. Daramus. "A lot of us were separated from our social support, either physically, emotionally through different kinds of conflicts that were going on…. Anytime people have reason to be fearful for a long time, that's going to kind of get into their heads, and they'll be maybe a little more cautious, a little more defensive.”
That inclination might manifest in a need to sit next to their loved ones rather than a stranger, but there's another possible effect COVID-19 has had on our airplane etiquette: Excitement over our newfound freedom and collective revenge travel efforts to reclaim the time (and experiences) we lost during the pandemic could be the reason why civility has flown out the door.
“A lot of people are in a period of relative freedom where they're maybe not thinking things through as carefully as they had to during the pandemic,” adds Dr. Daramus. “There's some anxiety, but there's also eagerness to be out there doing things—maybe sometimes a little bit of restlessness. We've been let out to play after being shut inside for a long time, and now we really want to play.” And, apparently, that means seat switching on an airplane to wherever we want.
The thing is, all passengers are entitled to in-flight comfort
I pay extra for my seat for special reasons. I’m 5’9” and over 200 pounds, and sitting in the window seat gives me a few extra inches to lean away from my neighbor, providing some extra freedom to move around. If anything, paying for a window seat is a kind courtesy to other passengers.
I’m also neurodivergent. I get easily overwhelmed by loud noises and cramped spaces, and having a wall to my side gives me a small amount of privacy and comfort. With a window seat, a charged phone, and a pair of working AirPods, I can unclench my jaw a bit and relax.
I get easily overwhelmed by loud noises and cramped spaces, and having a wall to my side from a window seat gives me a small amount of privacy and comfort.
I deserve to feel comfortable during my flights. Yes, I’m a grown adult and, yes, I could just “deal with it” for the sake of others, but why should I have to? Why should I have to sacrifice my own comfort? If I had my own child seated next to me, would you even think of asking me for this favor? Do I need to start hiring a child actor to accompany me on flights?
But, truly, after I’ve taken the time to plan ahead and secure the seat of my choice for myself—oftentimes paying extra money for it—I shouldn’t be made to feel guilty for wanting to sit in it. As for how to advocate for yourself and exercise claim over your rightful seat, licensed counselor and EMDR therapist Theresa Libios says some introspection can help. Knowing that you deserve to sit in the seat you paid for is one thing; speaking up is another.
“Really, the conflict is within yourself,” says Libios. “It’s a matter of looking within to see ‘hey, where does that guilt come from when I say no? Why don’t I think I deserve to sit here? What is it in me saying that I don’t deserve this space, that I don’t deserve this seat?’ Because you do have every right to say no.”
Instances when I'm okay with airplane seat switching requests
Yes, there are extenuating circumstances when I'd entertain an airplane seat switching request. Maybe your family’s previous flight was canceled and you’ve been shuffled onto a later flight with seats spread apart across the plane. Maybe your child has sensory issues like I do, and being next to the window would keep them from an in-flight breakdown. Maybe your child is young enough that you’re simply concerned about having them sit next to strangers.
I get it. Things happen, even if you’re one of those super-parents that plans vacations down to the last extra set of socks. I’ve never been one to so much as eye-roll over a screaming baby on a plane, and I have a 7-year-old sister who I definitely wouldn’t want to sit next to a stranger for four hours.
The problem lies in assuming I’m willing to make myself uncomfortable for your family. Asking politely to switch seats never hurt anyone, and if that lady I previously mentioned had asked nicely, I probably would have offered the seat up to her. But she didn’t, and the other two offenders I've recently encountered didn’t, either. They just decided that their rude behavior would grant their demands, with no regard for my comfort being the collateral damage.
“It should always be okay to ask, but it's rarely, if ever, okay to assume you're the only one with needs,” says Dr. Daramus. “When somebody deliberately bought that specific seat, then it might be okay for that person to say ‘no, it's really not convenient for me to switch.'”
The good news is there are ways to ensure there's no need to ask for seat switching on an airplane; almost every airline allows passengers to select their seat for a fee while booking. And even Southwest, which doesn't offer seat selections, does sell upgraded boarding tickets for passengers who wish board early and sit together.
Ultimately, though, my co-passengers' lack of planning is not my emergency. And while we’re at it, no, I can’t open the window shade right now, sorry. I like having it down, thank you.
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