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Recently I flew from Buenos Aires to Houston to Honolulu in United economy. (I booked the award for 25,000 Singapore miles plus taxes.) Door to door, it was over 26 hours of travel, which is a long time to not be able to lie down and sleep.

The first flight was basically full, but the second flight was operated by a 777 with a 2-5-2 configuration in economy and several completely empty rows of five seats at the time of check in. Farther back in the plane, the configuration was 2-4-2 with several open rows of four. I endeavored to snag an entire row of four or five to get an economy class “lie-flat bed.”

When I checked in, I swapped out my window seat near the front of economy for a middle seat in a row of four. I reasoned that the rows of five would be filled before the rows of four because they were closer to the front, and that my row would be skipped over, if I took a middle seat, for one with only one person in an aisle seat.

Everything looked good on the United mobile app’s seat map until the last few minutes before boarding. At that point, the gate agent in Houston started giving seat assignments to the dozens of standby passengers. All the empty rows started to get a person or two, and as I stood on the plane walking to my row, I saw that a person was added to it.


I thought about moving to a row of five with only one person on an aisle, but by the time the standby passengers were cleared every row of five had two passengers. In fact, the only row of four with one passenger was directly behind me.

In it, sat a young man in a Houston Astros t-shirt and shorts. He seemed to be going to Hawaii with two other men sitting in the group of two seats in his row next to the window.

Before take off, I wanted to ask him to switch seats with me. Since my seat was inferior because there was someone else in the row, it only seemed fair to offer him money to switch. I figured I’d be willing to pay $100 for the switch, and settled on offering him $20 to switch, hoping that by anchoring low we’d end up there or around $40. But I chickened out because it’s awkward to interact commercially or negotiate with strangers in a non-commercial setting.

After take off, though, I was so exhausted that I had to ask.

“Excuse me, would you be willing to switch seats with me for money?”


Well that was that.

I was kind of surprised he shot me down without hearing an offer. I was even more surprised when he proceeded to sit in his seat (not lie down) the entire flight and when someone moved to his other aisle seat, so he didn’t even have an entire row to himself. Why didn’t he just take the free money for the same situation a row up?

  1. Maybe he wanted to be able to talk to his friends across the aisle, although he could have done that from my seat. Their row was really between my row and his row since the rows are a bit staggered.
  2. Maybe he was planning to lie across four seats, but an interloper who moved to his row foiled the plan.
  3. Maybe he hates the “elite,” and wanted to stick it to them, and thought that I was them because I was wearing a suit. (I’ve been flying in a suit since September because it’s fun and because I don’t want to fold it into my bag.)
  4. Maybe he just really, really didn’t want to have to stand up again.
  5. Maybe he has simple tastes and enough money and moving didn’t interest him.
  6. Maybe he found my offer distasteful and declined to punish me for being such a rude person.

One and four make the most sense to me, but there must have been some price worth moving for, and he had no interest in finding it.

I can’t help but think I might have had more success if, instead of cash, I had offered the chance at a good deed: “Hey man, I just flew ten hours to Houston, and I was really hoping to sleep on this flight, but they assigned someone else to my row at the last minute. Is there any chance you would switch seats with me if you weren’t planning to sleep? I’d be forever grateful.” Some people respond better to that than cash.

What do you think? Is it OK to ask people to switch seats in economy for money? Is it more effective to ask for them to do it with or without money?

(I ended up lying across three seats in my assigned row. I didn’t feel bad taking up three-fourths of the seats because my row had two fixed arm rests, between the aisle and middle seats, that made it impossible to enjoy two seats comfortably other than the middle two–translation: the other guy in the aisle couldn’t use “his” middle seat, so why shouldn’t I? I had to bend my legs over the fixed arm rest that broke my string of three seats, but that was right where I’d need to bend my legs any way to fit in three seats. [I can get fully flat in four.] I slept comfortably for about four hours and arrived semi-rested in Hawaii and ready to go to bed early that night.)

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