I have a theory that most of the American public has forgotten the protocols for mass transit, especially a crucial principle for air travel that I call seat sovereignty.
Take this incident recently witnessed by the kid on a Southwest Airlines flight. As the final wave of passengers boarded at Bradley in compliance with Southwest’s unassigned seating policy, they found that all the aisle and window seats were taken.
One woman decided that she would prefer an aisle seat, and asked the woman already sitting in it to move into the unoccupied center seat. The seated passenger refused and the boarding passenger grumbled with annoyance.
The woman who was boarding then realized that she would have to sit in the middle. But when she tried that, the seated passenger refused to let her in.
They were both completely out of line.
Whether an airline operates with assigned seating or with first-come, first-served boarding, as Southwest does, no passenger has the right to demand another passenger’s seat. I would go so far as to suggest that it’s not even appropriate to ask.
If you are separated from a traveling companion, you can bid each other good-bye loudly, look winsome and hope someone offers to switch seats. But if nobody offers, you have to accept that it’s because nobody wants to. And nobody has to, either.
Business travelers know this, and if you read the message boards at places like FlyerTalk, they are supremely annoyed by those leisure travelers who don’t get it.
Now, if a passenger truly needs a particular seat, the flight crew will get it for him, even if it means telling someone else to move. A passenger with a broken foot may need the bulkhead legroom, for instance, or an adult may need to be seated next to a very young child. But this power of eminent domain belongs only to the flight attendants.
So, unless the flight crew says otherwise, a passenger has an inviolate right to his seat.
This sovereignty does not extend, however, to the empty seat next to that passenger. Nobody has a right to reserve, save or block off a seat he didn’t pay for. In the case of my daughter’s Southwest flight, the flight crew let the offending passenger know this in no uncertain terms.
All this seems like common sense, but I think that a lot of people just aren’t used to thinking about how to use mass transit. Driving around alone in our sedans and SUVs, never taking a bus or train, we don’t have to think about sharing space with strangers.
I ran into this lack of travel etiquette once on a transcontinental flight on a United 777. When I found that my seatback entertainment unit didn’t work, the purser moved me to one of the few empty seats on the plane. But the woman sitting next to the empty seat tried to tell me I couldn’t have it because it was her husband’s seat.
It turned out that her husband had missed the plane. The purser told her that her husband would get his seat on the next plane, that she wasn’t entitled to an extra seat and that she could just shove over.
I didn’t mind her glaring for the rest of the flight. I was watching the movie.