December 28, 2009

Ask the FA: Changing Seats Onboard- Is It OK?

Q) On an international flight, what are the rules about changing seats? I have seen some people run for empty seats as soon as the plane door has closed, stretch out over three and be asleep before the plane has left the ground (may have been my children). Is this okay? Leonie

A) Dear Leonie, Long-haul flights can be such a drag, can't they? One of the most tempting sights to see on a crowded flight is a row of empty seats - a whole row! Changing seats is usually fine, but there are ways to go about it.

If your flight is really empty, it's better to keep your assigned seat until after take-off. Some airlines might even make an announcement asking passengers to do this. On a very empty flight, lots of passengers moving around can affect the balance of the aircraft, and while it likely won't fall out of the sky, it can make a difference to the pilots' information like fuel and takeoff speeds. They like to know just where everyone is sitting for takeoff, so if your flight is quite deserted, wait until after take-off before you move.

'But someone else might beat me to those seats!', you're thinking. They might! But the smart traveller will use personal items (like books, blankets or a small, non-valuable bag) to mark those seats as 'taken'. I'd only suggest this if lots of people are circling and eyeing off those seats, though. And it's always nice (not to mention polite) to ask the crew if it's ok if you 'save' seats for later. That way you can keep your seat for take-off, but still have some space after the seatbelt sign is switched off. Of course, be sure to only reserve seats you acctually need, and consider that others might also want a bit of space.

If in doubt, it's always best to ask your crew, as different airlines and even countries have different rules. Another factor to consider is if you have ordered special meals. If you do move, be sure to let the crew know as soon as possible, so they can record your new seat number next to your ordered meal. Sometimes we crew have those seats in mind to move people to for various reasons, for example, separated families, a bereaved person who needs some space, or other such circumstances. We do appreciate passengers doing the polite thing, and asking, because we hate to send you back to 'middle seat' hell! So by all means, if you see empty seats, it doesn't hurt to ask.

Just a note- if travelling with kids, remember that they'll need to be sitting upright again for landing, and ALWAYS put a seatbelt on them when they're asleep. Happy travels, and enjoy the extra space!

(NOTE: Due to new extra security measures introduced on certain flights over the past few days, I would advise asking the crew at all times before moving around in the aircraft, to avoid any misunderstandings or breaking of new rules. As always, if in doubt- ask!)

While we're on the subject of changing seats, I'd like to hear about your experiences. Have you had a good or bad response to wanting to change seats? Do you have a 'sure-fire' way to snag that plum seat before everyone else? Tell me about your flights!

Next time: Questions about special-order meals

(Photo: Ryan Lemos on Flickr)


  1. Shouldn't children be bucketed in at all times during the flight? What with air pockets and light bodies flying around?

  2. Theey should but not everyone who travels with kids has grasped that concept yet :)

  3. I always use the weight and balance reason as an excuse :P And when the start comparing to other airlines, I say we're on a much smaller aircraft so the difference is much more significant!

  4. Today, a mother with a 2 month old baby sat in front of bulkhead didn't want an infant seatbelt because it was going to make him cry. I had to convince her using hardcore metaphores. She got my point in the end, but I had to use gestures and sound effects aircraft equipment. Frequent Fliar seated next door couldn't help but laugh.

  5. @SHB- Lol... they never seem to get that not all airlines operate the same way!!!

    @Airboy... I know, seems these days you need to describe brains getting smushed on a bulkhead before they will co-operate!


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