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On flights, seatmates (strangers near my seat) have asked me to swap my aisle seat (reserved in advance, sometimes paid for), usually to my disadvantage as their seat has some snag (dirtier, narrower, too close to lavatory).

I usually answer 'Sorry, but I prefer mine, thanks'. But this spurs more questions, or silent but detectable hostility and scowling from some of these rejected seatmates. How can I refuse tactfully, without causing this bitterness?

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    Please don’t write answers in comments. It bypasses our quality measures by not having voting (both up and down) available on comments, as well as having other problems detailed on meta. Comments are for clarifying and improving the question; please don’t use them for other purposes. (cc @JaneS) – Arwen Undómiel Apr 16 '18 at 21:11
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    Pretty much an exact duplicate of this question on Travel SE travel.stackexchange.com/questions/48775/… – Kevin Apr 17 '18 at 4:29
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    @Kevin funnily enough, OP has participated in that thread – muru Apr 19 '18 at 14:55
  • I am not sure I understand: they want you to take their worse seat (dirty, middle or whatever), just like that? – WoJ Apr 19 '18 at 17:50
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"I'm sorry, I selected this seat in advance. But thank you for asking!" Another option is to say, "Thank you for asking! I like this seat just fine." Smile and be polite yet firm.

It's been my experience that when people want a reason, it's to argue. So I never offer a reason. In this case, my response to "why?" would be "I do not wish to change" or "I reserved this seat" or (again) "This seat is just fine". And I'd leave it at that. Sure, others can ask why. They can even offer you a reason to switch. Maybe they glare at you. But let me ask this: will you ever see these people again? I suspect that the answer is "no". In that case, who cares if they are scowling at you or glaring? (Edit in response to Wildcard's comment) Be gracious in your response and the scowling and glaring is their problem, not yours.

Yes, they want your seat. But you reserved THAT seat, in advance, and may have paid more for it. If they wanted that seat, they could have done the same thing. Unless you have special access to some kind of reservation system, they had the same chance you did of getting that seat. Because of that, you owe someone else nothing. A polite decline will leave you in the seat you reserved. (Edit in response to @M.Mat) And you can conclude the whole interaction by offering to help: "I understand your need to find a different seat; I'm sorry I can't help you with this. Can I call the flight attendant? Perhaps they might be able to accommodate your needs."

Now, with respect to the scowling and hostility: stay polite. You politely declined the offer to switch and now are staying polite. Read a book. Nap. Watch a movie. Do whatever you would normally do. If someone wants to take a chunk of their life to be mad at a perfect stranger who is being polite, that's their problem, not yours.

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    Disagreeing with an answer is not a reason to comment. These sorts of comments inevitably lead to arguments. If you disagree, downvote or write your own answer. Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Catija Apr 17 '18 at 19:32
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    Perhaps rather than "thank-you, for asking." say instead "Thank you for offering". Sounds more natural to me. Or is the asking part for a reason? – Lyndon White Apr 19 '18 at 10:25
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    @LyndonWhite "Asking" implies that they are making a request of me - one that I am free to either accept or refuse. "Offering" implies something that is more of a gift and not as easily refused. And generally a worse seat is not a gift I want. – baldPrussian Apr 21 '18 at 1:38
  • "Can I call the flight attendant?": I don't understand the suggestion of offering to call an attendant for them, as if the person's insatisfaction with their seat and interest in your seat would mean that their problems have somehow also become your problem. I think it's safer to phrase this as "Have you tried asking a flight attendant whether they can accommodate your needs?" Except, of course, your actual reason for calling an attendant is because they are being insistent and you would need help to make them stop... – a3nm May 16 '18 at 23:03
  • @a3nm "for you". as in, "this can be their problem, not mine" – baldPrussian May 17 '18 at 1:48
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Unless they make a convincing appeal for why they really need my seat, I say something like "sorry, but I specifically reserved {an aisle seat, a window seat, a seat in the front of the plane, etc}". This approach communicates that I have a specific preference (that I arranged for). It leaves the door open for them to propose something different that still satisfies my requirement; if a family is trying to do seat-Tetris to sit together, maybe that information helps them. Use this approach only if you're willing to move to a different aisle/window/front/whatever seat if they find you one.

From what I've seen, last-minute requests to change seats are usually because of factors beyond the person's control, like a family got rebooked after their original flight was canceled. Flying is already stressful, so be sympathetic not combative. That doesn't mean you need to agree to a bad trade, but don't add to the aggravation by being harsh with them.

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    A growing number of airlines offer ultra-cheap fares where not only can families not choose adjoining seats, but the airline appears to go out of their way to separate parties. – arp Apr 18 '18 at 8:51
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    @arp Understandable part of business -- choosing your seat on an airline is a service that people are more than willing to pay for, why devalue it by letting people choose their seat without paying extra? – USER_8675309 Apr 19 '18 at 13:19
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    My point is that I have more sympathy for people who are separated through no fault of their own than for people who are separated because they bought cheap seats that don't allow groups to sit together. – arp Apr 19 '18 at 20:38
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    A principal unwillingness to cooperate as represented by @baldPrussian's answer is not conducive to getting along with each other in the stressful, crowded space of an airplane cabin. It is sign of advanced cicilization to be considerate. Not at all cost, mind you; so I like this answer a lot. I have both switched seats on request and profited from someone else doing so (so that I could sit close to my son). – Peter A. Schneider Apr 20 '18 at 13:36
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If I'm dead-set on not moving, I'd say "Thank you for offering, but I'll keep my seat" which implies they were trying to do you a favor and you've (politely) declined, while asserting your claim to the seat in question.

If they persist, maintaining that they are graciously offering to trade but you must decline as you're fine where you are.

You've now cast their request (for their benefit) as an offer (for your benefit), which is much easier to refuse: They then have to violate the implication and admit they are asking for their own benefit, rather than yours, in order to push the issue... and from my experience most people won't.

It's the same as leading with "thank you for your patience" tends to make people more patient, or telling a child you've just met about how well-behaved you've heard they are. You've attributed them with a positive quality and to do otherwise means they explicitly prove they do not possess that quality... people will (primarily sub)consciously attempt to live up to it.

It doesn't work on everyone, but it's been surprisingly effective for me.

Since it's somewhat unclear, I want to clarify the tone I aim to set: The intention is to show them I am assuming they have good intentions, not to be patronizing or sarcastic. This is a powerful position to take. Some people will of course become argumentative, but I am of the opinion they would have become so regardless of what you said.

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Requests to change seats should be made to the flight attendant not to the passenger. Ideally, the passenger with a pressing, real need (not just a want) for a seat change thinks ahead and discusses his problem with the agents at the desk in the boarding area, who can alert the cabin crew. This is what the family of the elderly lady (see below) probably did. In literally hundreds of flights, I have been asked only twice to change seats, once by the flight attendant to allow a very elderly and frail woman to sit next to a member of her family, who was seated next to me. Of course, I agreed.

The other time, a woman in her twenties, some 30 years younger than I, travelling alone, asked me to change my aisle seat for her center seat "because it will be easier for me to work on my computer." That one I turned down with "Do I look stupid? Certainly not!" OK, this wasn't tactful, but this was a time not to be tactful.

If the request does not come from a flight attendant, just say

Talk to the flight attendant if you don't like your seat.

If the request comes from a flight attendant, consider the reasons and either say yes, of course (as I did for the old, frail lady) or no, sorry, I'd much rather not. Do not engage with a pushy passenger.

Some readers will correctly object that flight attendants are too harried on today's crowded flights to do much seat-rearranging. Precisely! But they will make time to deal with an urgent request involving the very old, the disabled, and young children. All others should just settle in and endure.

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    "but this was a time not to be tactful." Can you explain this part? – LisaMM Apr 23 '18 at 13:18
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    @LisaMM Here was a young woman asking a much older woman to take a much less desirable sear so that it would be easier for her (the younger woman) to work on her computer. If that doesn't deserve a slapdown, what does? – user1760 Apr 23 '18 at 16:55
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Assume the best about those making the request

The first step in my opinion is to assume the person making the request is doing so with good intentions. Different people have different levels of willingness to move. For example I am generally happy to swap seats if it helps someone out, but also have no inhibition against asking someone for a swap if it means I can be closer to a friend of family member (sometimes booking seats together just doesn't quite work out for one reason or another). This puts the interaction on a positive footing.

Respond appropriately depending on their situation

The second step is to listen to their reason for wanting to move (usually this will be given when someone makes such a request). If they say something minor like "I like an aisle seat", you can dismiss their question fairly lightly: "I like an aisle seat too, unfortunately, that's why I booked this one", they are unlikely to be much offended, because they know the request was cheeky. However if their request is reasonable (i.e. they have reason to believe that a swap would be more beneficial to them than inconvenient to you), then I would take a more polite, understanding approach.

Answer politely and succinctly, give reasons, but don't belabor them

I would say "Sorry, but I specifically booked this seat because { characteristics which made you pick that seat}". I would not use the approach of pretending to think the request was an offer (as suggested in other answers), unless the asker phrased it as such, because to me it sounds obviously disingenuous. I think that you having specifically chosen that seat is a strong argument, which many will simply accept. Tone is important — the aim is to sound firm, but not irritated by the request.

Make it clear that you are not up for argument

The asker may try to argue, or come up with an alternative solution. Avoid continuing the argument unless you are willing to be persuaded/come to a compromise. Instead simply express your unwillingness to move e.g. "Sorry, but I just didn't like moving from my chosen seat once I am settled".

Their response is their own problem

Some people will be bad tempered about having their request declined, however polite, however reasonable you are, and however good your reasons for declining. Don't take it personally, just feel slightly sorry for them ( their attitude is only hurting themselves) as you pick up your book, put on your headphones or do whatever it is you like to do to get ready for a long journey.

  • I always feel that prefacing a statement with 'sorry' might give the other person a feeling that they have a slight upper hand. Why say you're sorry? You're probably not, as if you were that sorry, you'd accommodate their needs. Or, if in fact you're sorry for them, say so..! – Tim Apr 24 '18 at 10:19
  • @Tim I think that may be cultural, I grew up in a culture where the sympathy meaning of sorry is far more emphasised than the personal responsibility meaning, so that may have shaped my view. As you feel using "sorry" carries the wrong connotation, how would you succinctly express sympathy for someone's situation, without taking responsibility for it? – user9910 Apr 24 '18 at 12:36
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You cannot avoid the bitterness, some people will get mad when they don't get what they want, regardless of your justification. That's a part of life and you are better off learning to dismiss them after your polite response, as they are not giving you the respect you deserve and so you should not feel compelled to offer them the same.

I would say 'I paid $50 for this seat, I will sell it to you for $100 if you want it that badly' or something like that, but I am a fan of putting people in situations where I get to see where their priorities lay, so your mileage may vary.

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    Hey, thanks for the answer! Can you please explain exactly why you think that this is a good idea? Why do you say to take this course of action? What’s the thought process behind this answer? As this currently stands, this is essentially a “Try this!” answer. We require that answers provide some sort of explanation for why they are suggesting this solution, and unfortunately, at the moment this answer doesn't appear to do that. – Arwen Undómiel Apr 17 '18 at 13:35
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    " That's a part of life and you are better off learning to dismiss them after your polite response, as they are not giving you the respect you deserve and so you should not feel compelled to offer them the same." That is an explanation of why he thinks it is a good idea. (emphasis is mine) – Link0352 Apr 17 '18 at 13:55
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    @ArwenUndómiel I actually like this answer. It makes sense. "putting people in situations where I get to see where their priorities lay" is a great idea. – isaace Apr 17 '18 at 14:12
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    @PeterA.Schneider Just because the explanation is self-evident to you does not mean that it is self-evident to everyone else. People come to this site to ask questions specifically because they have trouble navigating interpersonal interactions. It is quite likely that there will be future readers who don't see this answer as self-explanatory and explicitly adding the explanation can only server to make the post better. – Rainbacon Apr 20 '18 at 14:10
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You could claim that you chose your seat due to it being your favourite/lucky number. (I consider this a harmless lie. If you don't, you could actually make it the truth by applying a personal policy to book seats with a number which is suitably relevant to you, thereby maintaining a clear conscience.)

If the other person is persistent, then further explain that you daren't leave your lucky seat as you have had recurring dreams of being involved in a plane crash flight incident.

See how keen they are to move you after that! I trust that most fellow-flyers will then be sympathetic enough to withdraw from the confrontation.

If this verbal deception doesn't sit comfortably with your personal moral code then you could infer non-specific discomfort with the request by gripping the seat arms and giving a shake of the head with an ashen look on your face. This body language should be enough to re-establish your privacy.

I acknowledge that this avoidance tactic is perhaps the bottom of the barrel with regard to interpersonal skills! I have only added it to my answer as a non-verbal alternative to my original gambit.

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Consider redirecting them.

"I'm sorry you were not assigned the seat you needed. I cannot help you, but perhaps one of the attendants can. Shall I press the call button so they can help you?"

While the base action is the same as other suggestions - saying no and calling the attendant if pressured - the wording is designed to give them no way to argue with you, and immediately tells them what will happen if they continue to pressure you.

If they pressure you, or ask why you can't help them, simply move forward with the only thing you can help them with:

"Again, I can't help you, but I'm pressing the call button and someone will be here shortly who may be able to help you. I hope you are able to have this situation resolved."

Don't give them even an inch. Don't give them any information they don't need to know - and the only thing they need to know is that you cannot help them resolve their problem. Don't suggest you have a preference or specific need. Don't give them any opening which would allow them to argue with you that their "need" might be greater than yours.

Just say no, call the attendant if pressured, and ignore them.

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I fly often and I usually choose the aisle because it's the only seat where my legs have a chance to fit, because I'm going to put them in the aisle.

If you are a tall person you may use this explanation:

I'm sorry but I chosen the aisle seat because I'm too tall to seat comfortably in the other seats.

This will clearly explain the other person that you are not refusing to switch seat because you don't like her, but because you have some real issue with other seats.

Obviously if the other person is way taller than you, give her the seat ;)

  • I'm short enough that my legs fit in just about any airline seat. That doesn't obligate me to sit in a less-comfortable seat by other criteria. I dislike the implication that taller travellers automatically deserve the more comfortable seats. – arp Jun 5 '18 at 5:01

protected by A J Jul 8 '18 at 6:48

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