Couples Leaving Empty Middle Seat: Gaming the System?Strategic seat selection can make all the difference between a comfortable flight and a torturous experience in a cramped middle seat. That’s why many frequent flyers spend a lot of time and effort researching aircraft configurations and choosing the best seat on the plane.

When travelling as a couple, aircraft with pairs of neighbouring seats are ideal. There’s one window and aisle seat between you, and nobody gets stuck in a dreaded middle seat. Airbus A330s, A340s and Embraer E190s, with two seats by each window, are therefore ideal for couples. But most aircraft seats come in blocks of three.

In this case, one seat selection strategy for couples travelling together is to choose an aisle and window seat in the same row, leaving an empty middle seat between them. The theory is that the middle seat is likely to remain empty as nobody would willingly choose that seat. But if the flight happens to be full and somebody is allocated the middle seat, the couple can ask the passenger in the middle seat to swap to the aisle or window. Almost everyone would prefer to sit in an aisle or window than a middle seat, so the chances this person will switch are high.

It looks like a win-win situation. But is it?

There has been a lengthy discussion on AFF about the strategy of couples leaving an empty middle seat. Some members believe it’s a reasonable tactic that often results in a more comfortable flight…

Struggling to see the problem with them getting a better seat than they selected. A and C seats are equally open to all, if you are late and get a B seat, you firstly have missed out because you were slow (that’s the system, all systems are there to be taken advantage of) nor are they “inconvenienced ” if the inconvenience is to move to a better seat (and they can always say no). I do get this “appears” selfish but in the first instance if they want a window/aisle seat that much they should seat select earlier and in the second if anything they are advantaged.

But other AFF members believe this is gaming the system and unfair.

I think the A+C seats thingy is inherently unfair. Most of us like to arrange things in advance to make our trips as comfortable as possible, partly to reduce the stresses associated with airline travel these days. For the person already faced with lengthy check-in queues, baggage and hand baggage weight restrictions, hanging around at the gate during any delays… the thought of also being stuck in a middle seat for 24 hours is no fun. Sure they might find out once on board that the A+C were ‘chancing it’ and willing to swap, but that doesn’t relieve the stress in the days/weeks prior to getting on board.

Passengers wanting an A+C combo can easily purchase a comfort seat at heavily reduced prices.

Airlines typically frown upon this practice as it leaves fewer aisle and window seats for other passengers. But are airlines within their rights to forcibly move one passenger from their pre-allocated window or aisle into the middle seat next to their travel companion? Our members believe not. Some couples simply choose an aisle and a window because those are their preferred seats – and not to game the system. They would rather have a comfortable flight than sit next to each other.

Why, because I am part of a couple, should I have to sit in the middle to allow a complete stranger to have the window? Fairness to whom? Obviously not to me (or equally to my partner – whichever one of us is supposed to have the middle seat).

Where do you stand on this issue – is it fair for couples to leave an empty middle seat between them? Join the discussion on the Australian Frequent Flyer forum: Preselecting Seating leaving Open Seat between you. Is it gaming?

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Matt Graham
The editor of Australian Frequent Flyer, Matt's passion for travel has taken him to over 60 countries… with the help of frequent flyer points, of course!
Matt's favourite destinations (so far) are Germany, Brazil, New Zealand & Kazakhstan. His interests include economics, aviation & foreign languages, and he has a soft spot for good food and red wine.

You can contact Matt at [email protected]lyer.com.au