Are You Allowed To Use The Empty Seat Next To You On A Plane?

You used to be able to take any open seat in your cabin once the doors closed. That meant if you were in a middle seat, you might take an open aisle. You might move closer to the front. Or you might head for an empty row in the back so you could stretch out. As a kid I remember making a bee-line for an empty middle row on an American Airlines flight to Sydney, so I could lay down and sleep. But you’re always taking a chance that the flight will be empty enough to do this.

There was no self-upgrading, so you couldn’t just move from economy to business class. And now that airlines charge for ‘premium’ seats in coach they don’t usually let you go from regular coach to extra legroom because of the revenue leakage. People might not pay if they knew they could take an extra legroom seat for free that was empty once everyone had boarded.

But surely the seat next to you, if left empty, is fair game for use right? You can spread out a bit. One of the best thing about Southwest Airlines opening seat for families is that no one wants to sit next to your lap infant, so there’s a good chance you get that extra seat for free instead of having to buy it.

Not everyone shares this view. Matt Tolhurst took to social media to share his frustration with an American Airlines flight attendant who, he says, scolded his wife for putting their 4 month old baby down in the empty seat beside her while she pumped breast milk inflight.

@AmericanAir did AA1592 flight attendants get bad news today? Did they have to be blunt & rude to my wife who placed our 4 month old son on an empty seat next to her while she was pumping, demanding she hold him because she hadn’t paid for the empty seat? @garyleff @thepointsguy

— Matt Tolhurst (@tolly1804) December 15, 2022

Flight was in the air, seatbelt sign was off and the seat next to her was empty. Flight attendant came through and told her off for placing him on the seat while she pumped… she had to hold him.

— Matt Tolhurst (@tolly1804) December 16, 2022

I reached out to American Airlines for comment on Thursday, and they did not respond. However it seems to me that the reported actions of the crew were out of line. That said it’s also true that an infant with their own seat must be in a safety seat “during taxi, takeoff, landing and whenever the ‘fasten seatbelt’ sign is on.” At other times, though, it would seem fine to place the lap infant in the seat beside the mother.

And American Airlines official policy even contemplates a parent using the empty seat beside them for a lap infant (emphasis mine):

To carry on a safety seat, you must have bought a seat for the child, or a seat must be available next to you. If an unoccupied, adjoining seat is not available, the gate agent will check the safety seat to your final destination.

Clearly the best option, though, if you’re traveling with a lap infant and aren’t going to buy that extra seat is Southwest’s approach to seating.

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