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Airlines

Is Moving to an Empty Seat Considered Theft?

Is Moving to an Empty Seat Considered Theft?
Jennifer Billock

United Airlines is going viral for their Twitter response to a passenger complaining that they weren’t allowed to move to an empty seat in Economy Plus on their flight. But while @krunasty thought he should be allowed to nab any seat, United compared a move from economy to economy plus to stealing.  

You’re on a flight with a bunch of empty seats and you’re stuck in a cramped spot packed in between other people. When boarding is complete, do you move to another seat? And would it be OK to move to a larger seat? For some people, a move from economy to first class is clearly out of bounds. The curtain, for one, makes it clear that you’re entering a very different part of the plane with a much higher class of service.

But what about moving from your economy seat to preferred economy—economy seats like the exit row and those closer to the front of the plane that United charges more for—or even to an Economy Plus seat? Is that also way out of bounds? That’s the United Airlines debate that went viral on Twitter. Passenger Krunal thought it should have been fine to move from regular economy to Economy Plus. But United Airlines’ social media rep said that it was tantamount to stealing.

Here’s what happened.

In a now-deleted tweet from user krunasty, the passenger questioned the airline on why they were unable to move to an economy seat with more legroom once the flight was ready for takeoff. United replied with two comments:

Replies to the tweets are mixed as to whether the policy is correct or just poor customer service.

What do you think? Let us know in the FlyerTalk Forums.

 

[Featured Image: United]

View Comments (70)

70 Comments

  1. hyho61

    September 10, 2019 at 6:22 am

    May be the passenger was an premier customer, and was assigned a regular economy seat and so has the right to move to Economy Plus seat since premier customers are allowed to go to Eco+ without charge. Happens all the time to Premier Silver (they get regular seats at the time of reservation but can move to Eco plus upon checkin), but sometimes Eco plus seats open up just prior to the flight departure.

  2. Global321

    September 10, 2019 at 6:23 am

    Another misleading headline.

    UA sells those seats for more $. @krunasty did not try to move to an open seat in E. He tried to move to a seat that costs more. UA is 100% correct in this case. Airlines all around the world charge more for seats closer to the front of the plane, even discount carriers. @krunasty was 100% wrong.

  3. Tailgater

    September 10, 2019 at 6:34 am

    same deal as in sports venues. You pay for a nose bleed seat, then don’t think that you can move down to unoccupied level one seats (although people try and get away with it)

  4. sfoeuroflyer

    September 10, 2019 at 7:07 am

    A very misleading headline. This relates to moving to an empty seat in a higher class of service. Of course that is theft as the person doing it is stealing something that he or she did not pay for.

  5. gene2632

    September 10, 2019 at 7:28 am

    I don’t normally agree with a lot of United’s policies but in this case they are right. A alway pay the extra for E+ and I would not be happy if someone from E came up a poached the seat next to me on the rare occasion it is empty.

  6. mike2003242

    September 10, 2019 at 7:42 am

    If it’s in the same category no, but if it’s any type of premium over what you paid for YES! Pretty straightforward to me.

  7. Occupationalhazard

    September 10, 2019 at 8:00 am

    You pay for one class of service, should you be able to “upgrade” yourself into another?

    If it’s “ok” to move from economy to economy plus would it be “ok” to move to an empty seat in business? Or is that still wrong?

  8. fotographer

    September 10, 2019 at 8:08 am

    yes , so if I am in coach and see an empty seat is first or business, can I move?

  9. crunchie

    September 10, 2019 at 8:16 am

    Just based on this article, sounds like one more case of entitled attitude. If you want the extra space, pay for it. If you got it for free by luck or unilateral decision to negate policy by some FA, enjoy your good luck. Complaining because nobody would give you something worth $$$ for free? Just go away.

  10. vandalby

    September 10, 2019 at 8:53 am

    Completely misleading headline. The question here isn’t moving to empty seats, it’s between moving classes. Would we bat an eye if a passenger was denied moving from Economy Plus or Premium Economy to Business? Of course not.

  11. SpartyAir

    September 10, 2019 at 9:21 am

    United is correct. No ‘ifs’, ‘ands’ or ‘buts’ about it.

  12. Icecat

    September 10, 2019 at 9:39 am

    United is 100% correct on this. If I purchased the E+ seat and the middle seat is empty, I wouldn’t want someone from the cheaper seats to come up and sit there and make me more uncomfortable. It’s the same reasoning as going from coach and sneaking in first class.

  13. Babu

    September 10, 2019 at 10:37 am

    Why stop at Economy Plus? Should have jumped right to First Class. Sheesh. The nerve.

  14. deadinabsentia

    September 10, 2019 at 10:38 am

    Thats not choosing a empty seat, that is changing class of service. This “article” is obnoxious.

  15. tr3k

    September 10, 2019 at 10:50 am

    Why not to one of the empty business class seats? Dream big!

  16. meunger11

    September 10, 2019 at 1:44 pm

    Don’t like United? Don’t fly United.

  17. weero

    weero

    September 11, 2019 at 1:04 am

    How does this warrant an article?

    The FA bounced the entitled dude and so did CS, as they should have.

    Nothing to see here.

  18. gaelflyer

    September 11, 2019 at 4:11 am

    Is it OK to move into the empty hotel room if you don’t like yours?

  19. vargha

    September 11, 2019 at 4:12 am

    Like everyone has said, jumping “classes” is not acceptable. However, I have no issue with someone moving to an empty seat in coach/economy that was $20-$60 extra in the pre-board seat assignments.

  20. cssaus

    September 11, 2019 at 4:14 am

    Hawaiian Airlines has a similar policy of moving from economy to economy comfort seats.

    I agree, the airlines should police this. If I pay extra for an extra comfort seat, I’d be pissed off if someone from down the back in economy came down and tried to grab one of these seats without paying!!

  21. AggieTexan

    September 11, 2019 at 4:23 am

    In this case I agree with United. Why should someone who didn’t pay for an Economy Plus seat be able to sit there without being assigned or upgraded?

  22. Mike Rivers

    September 11, 2019 at 4:26 am

    I think that technically, United has a right to protect their higher priced seats. Practically, it’s silly to make a fuss over this. But I understand that every situation is a little different. Suppose K was in a middle seat, and moved to a vacant middle seat between two premium-paying E+ passengers who had hoped that seat would remain vacant. They’d probably be pissed.

    We didn’t have this problem back when sections were well defined, and prices didn’t change every five minutes. Remember United’s Red, White, and Blue – color-coded seats for First, Business, and Coach class? It was easier to know the bounds back then.

  23. Marathon Man

    September 11, 2019 at 4:27 am

    As much as I think airlines love to nickel and dime us and essentially legally screw us all the time, I have some semblance of personal ethics remaining. If I were in economy I would only jump to another economy seat. Not upgrade myself unless the FA allowed it. I mean you could ask… and in this case, it’s a bit like when you get to a restaurant and want to sit at a different place than the host originally leads you to. If you mess up their plans it can throw off many things. So I would ask if upgrading is possible but if not I would only go to another seat like mine

    Maybe it’s aisle vs middle but same class. Regardless of whatever status I may have. If I currently purchased just economy seating then that is what I am on that flight—other than, say, whatever extra benefits come with my status they may give me.

    I would not take exit row without asking. These they MUST have a clear handle on—who, if anyone is in those seats

  24. kimikoftokyo

    kimikoftokyo

    September 11, 2019 at 4:31 am

    Ah i get it. It’s not in the same class why is this even a discussion? Next, this is beyond me lol. I rarely agree with airlines but they got one brownie point.

  25. mhrb

    September 11, 2019 at 4:34 am

    Is Moving to an Empty Seat Technically Theft?
    No.

  26. mvfchgo

    September 11, 2019 at 4:39 am

    It is theft, however, United’s 2nd Tweet using the pricey vehicle analogy is obnoxious and poor customer relations. The better headline should be: Are United Airlines and all the airlines creating outrageous luggage fees and Dick Cheny taking advantage of 911 by creating Homeland Security and the TSA immoral or capitalism at its worst moment?

  27. flyerCO

    September 11, 2019 at 4:41 am

    one problem at least in US, E+, MCE, C+, etc aren’t technically considered different cabins. Thus it’s not straight forward like moving from Y to J/F. Also to add confusion, airlines for years have charged fees to prepick “premium” seats unless elite. However those seats are free once checkin opens.

  28. saintby

    September 11, 2019 at 4:44 am

    Totally agree with United. If I pay for extra legroom,why should somebody else get it for free? If you want it, pay for it! Seen and heard it all before and (thankfully) the crew have always either made the pax pay for the better seat, or told them to move whence they came from.

  29. tcspears

    September 11, 2019 at 4:45 am

    I never agree with United, but they are 100% correct. This isn’t moving over to an empty economy row so you can have a window seat, this is moving yourself to a better class of service. Usually they are still offering those seats for sale as the plane is boarding, and they use them for upgrading passengers with status. How is that fair to the other passengers in coach? This guy clearly isn’t a frequent flyer, so why would he think he’s entitled to an upgrade, while no one else is?

  30. DeltaFlyer123

    September 11, 2019 at 4:50 am

    I think United is right. Just because an airline seat is a perishable item doesn’t mean one can take it without paying for it. It’s definitely not fair to customers who paid for it.
    If the customer were indeed an elite member of the airline, he would have been assigned that seat at the last minute. At least that’s how it is on Delta – there is a priority waitlist for possible empty high value seats.

  31. Buzzz

    September 11, 2019 at 5:05 am

    I’ve seen this same debate before. People who would never dream of moving from Economy to Business because there was an empty seat have no philosophical problem with moving from Economy to Premium Economy. The proper response to this customer is simple: The seat is in a different booking class, for which you have not paid. The lack of curtain or bulkhead between the two classes should not be interpreted as an invitation to upgrade oneself.

  32. musicman27pa

    September 11, 2019 at 5:18 am

    Want a better seat — don’t fly with a domestic or discount carrier or pay for their so-called tier service. Ranking lousy airlines from worst to less worst — Spirit, AA, United, Delta, Jet Blue, Southwest, any foreign plane (after all the foregin companies have more safeguards for their citizens than the domestics who the government (FAA), big airlines and Boeing are all in bed together to eliminate the rights of passengers/citizens… Lousy time to be flying — looking forward to the next recessions when all these sardine planes are sitting idle…

  33. GrayAnderson

    September 11, 2019 at 5:19 am

    So, to answer the question in the article:
    -If the move is within the same “cabin” (e.g. Y, W, J, or F) I don’t see an issue with a move so long as one’s new seatmate(s) agree. If an airline pushes back on this, I’d argue that they’re just being punitive (especially if there are empty rows in Y and yet folks are being “randomly” assigned middle seats).
    -However, any move between cabins (including between Y and W) is a problem. Of course, I’m rather of the view that if the seats are open the airline should probably be willing to at least sell the seat. If they can take my CC for an on-board drink purchase, why not an on-board seat upgrade?

  34. pony_trekker

    September 11, 2019 at 5:21 am

    People are dumb. Thanos was right. “Hey I bought a ticket to Wichita but the flight to London is empty, why can’t I just get on that flight?”

  35. MimiB22

    September 11, 2019 at 5:22 am

    I long for the good old days when there were only clearly defined classes and seats on planes. Back then, you could move between seats if something better located was open, within your purchased class ticket. Some of you remember, right ? But with today’s differentiation, sometimes 4 economy classes, it’s different. If you didn’t pay for an upgrade, you can’t move into it just because the seat is open. We can decry that all we want, but United is correct, given how they price seats.

  36. MRM

    September 11, 2019 at 5:23 am

    United’s right, but they gave a ridiculously stupid analogy about cars when “making their point”. Typical United – when something simple would suffice (UA IS RIGHT in this case) – they go and post something stupid that makes people question their validity in the first place.

  37. ichorush

    September 11, 2019 at 5:40 am

    I used to fly United almost exclusively being based in Houston. Ever since they dragged that man off the airplane, became surly in their customer service, constantly diminished their mileage plus program, my motto is ABU. Anyone but United. Southwest is just so much better. If I need business class there are a multitude to choose from.

  38. danbrew

    September 11, 2019 at 6:00 am

    well, ok, what about moving from a middle seat to an aisle seat in the same row? United certainly charges more for the aisle seats. don’t believe me? look at their E+ seat map when buying a ticket.

  39. RedElmo

    September 11, 2019 at 6:03 am

    Not theft. But still not allowed to. Either get upgraded before you board or buy it. It’s not fair to me when I paid the extra money to guarantee the better seat. Why don’t I just steal it later. Oh wait. I guess you can call it theft.

  40. Shareholder

    September 11, 2019 at 6:07 am

    I’m of two minds on this matter. I do agree someone who is not entitled to these preferred seats (either by paying or having elite status of that airline) should not just move into an empty seat in this section. At the same time, those one the lowest fares who must otherwise pay for advance seat selection, often get put into these empty seats at check-in or at the gate when they have not had a pre-assigned seat and the flight is full. So the airline is giving the seat away to some even though the rest of us have paid in one way or another.

  41. justpassinthru

    September 11, 2019 at 6:20 am

    Agree with everyone else (there really isn’t any disagreement in these comments)…Jumping classes of service is theft. But then again so is sneaking into a airport club for food without consent of those running it, yet those folks get celebrated on line. Interestingly if you use just the cost of a seat argument it probably doesn’t hold (seats in economy can be sold for a wide range of prices and I have even seen them sell for more than economy plus or equivalent)

  42. avw

    September 11, 2019 at 6:22 am

    I can’t understand how anyone would think that it is okay to pay for one class of service, but help him/herself to another one that costs more.

  43. drussum

    September 11, 2019 at 6:23 am

    Always speak first with a flight attendant. There is discretion for upgrades which is clearly what this is. Flight attendants should also have the ability to use their mobile device to switch a passenger and collect payment for the seat (but they are usually quite busy during the boarding process ensuring proper boarding, stowage, and safety protocols are followed).

  44. tmac100

    September 11, 2019 at 6:26 am

    When I want more comfort, I pay extra for more legroom (aka pitch) in Premium Economy or Business. I take a dim view of anyone just helping themselves to a seat in the premium class that I have paid for.

    Helping yourself to a empty seat in a premium class is stealing! If someone wants the extra “perk” then they should pay for it.

  45. CaliforniaSteve

    September 11, 2019 at 6:33 am

    Agree with most of the comments. If there’s an empty seat in the class of travel you paid for, I think it’s fine to switch. But if you want to switch from cattle class to a seat that’s in a more expensive class, of course not. Perhaps the passenger in question should have demanded lounge access as well, since there was undoubtedly an empty seat there.

  46. Danwriter

    September 11, 2019 at 6:36 am

    There are empty seats on airplanes?

  47. Gizzabreak

    September 11, 2019 at 6:37 am

    Forgetting the theft consideration for a moment, let’s assume your airline has a 50% empty flight and arranges passenger loading so that weight is equally distributed throughout the cabin in order that the aircraft remains within center of gravity balance limits. At some point ALL the passengers decide to (say) move to the front of the cabin to be first in the queue standing in the isle waiting to get off in pretty much the same time as if they’d remained in their seat until the door/s were opened. Except … as the aircraft, now out of balance due to the forward movement of passengers, slows down for its approach, the (slowing) airflow over the elevator (the horizontal symetrical wing down the back that (mostly) makes the nose pitch up and down) generates less lift and the pilot is unable to hold the nose up. As the nose pitches down the speed increases temporarily and the pilot regains control, only to lose it again as he tries to reduce to a safe landing speed. Repeat one or more times until the aircraft impacts the ground in a nose dive and everyone dies. Yes, it really does happen like that (or the other way around) when the load doesn’t remain in the correct place … check this ‘Youtube’ link, https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=7sUWC2jfjqI or search “747 crash bagram afghanistan”

  48. PapaJack

    September 11, 2019 at 6:40 am

    Usually (on Delta) there are upgrades to fill the Economy Plus and then any standby passengers can get some of the newly vacated seats. In this case, if the seat became available “last minute” one would expect the flight crew to upgrade someone before take off. We have all seen this where someone is sitting down in their seat and a flight attendant comes up to tell you you have been upgraded. So this guy was clearly in the wrong, but more worrisome….United aren’t selling out these flights. 🙂

  49. acenase

    September 11, 2019 at 6:45 am

    HAha they made it seem like he moved from an economy aeat to another economy seat. Which is absolutely fine! But NO you can not move to a Premium, Business or First Class seat just because it’s empty!

  50. peter henry

    September 11, 2019 at 7:32 am

    This happened to me on a relatively empty SFO-SYD flight. As soon as the plane took off, all of the economy section rushed into Economy Plus, and the cabin crew gave up on sending them back. I had paid for the E+ seat, and was really upset that economy passengers were not only getting a free upgrade but sprawled themselves across empty 3-acrosses for the entire 17 hours.
    I complained to United after I returned. The apologized and refunded my E+ upgrade charges. It was really the fault of the cabin crew, they had 17 hours to make it right in the air.
    United was correct. It is theft.

  51. Jackie_414

    September 11, 2019 at 7:36 am

    United should grab this passenger who moved, throw him down against the arm rest breaking several facial bones, unbuckle him, and drag him back to steerage.

  52. alphaod

    September 11, 2019 at 7:44 am

    Technically speaking, moving to a different seat can be considered theft. Perhaps the analogy is poor.

  53. JoeDTW

    September 11, 2019 at 7:49 am

    Like most others, I feel the passenger was wrong. Had I been in E+ either because I paid for it or because I had Mileage + status, and this passenger sat in an empty seat next to me without paying for it, I would have been upset.

    Only once have I upgraded myself without paying for it. Two years ago, I was on a MSP-CLT flight that left at 5 AM on a Sunday morning. The flight was only about 25% full, and most passengers had entire rows to themselves. Just before pushback, I moved back a row to the emergency exit row, which was unoccupied. I was in a non-premium seat, and the exit row is considered by AA to be “premium” seating, I felt morally okay upgrading myself because nobody else was in the row, and had there been an emergency, I would have been able to open the window exits right away.

    The exit row across the aisle stayed vacant for the whole flight. I think the reason it stayed vacant is because the armrests in this row are fixed in place, and most passengers lifted the armrests of all the seats in their row up, so they could lay across all three seats and sleep; sitting in a row with fixed armrests would have been a downgrade for them.

  54. studentff

    September 11, 2019 at 8:02 am

    But where do you draw the line? UA (and others) are now upcharging for aisle seats, “preferred” but not actual E+ seats, and who knows what is next?

    At the extreme, basic economy passenger could be sitting in a middle seat adjacent to an empty window seat. Is his moving to the window, which benefits both him and the aisle-seat passenger, “theft” according to the airline?

  55. khamlet

    September 11, 2019 at 8:07 am

    Why didnt he just ask the flight attendant? I ve slept across three empty seats and I didnt buy all of them..
    Petty

  56. jybrick

    September 11, 2019 at 8:36 am

    @Gizzabreak Bagram had NOTHING to do with people changing seats!

  57. cab3

    September 11, 2019 at 10:08 am

    If the seat is assigned to you by the airline, does that make a difference, even if it wasn’t paid for? I’ve been on flights before where not all of the E+ seats were “sold” but ultimately given to standby passengers, rebooked passengers, etc. to accommodate them. So as long as the airline makes the decision to give away the seat, all’s good, but if a passenger makes the decision on their own after boarding doors are closed that’s wrong? I do think that a polite inquiry with the flight attendants may have resulted in a positive outcome, as long as it wasn’t infringing others that may have paid for seats (i.e. taking an empty middle seat between two paying customers).

  58. rrz518

    September 11, 2019 at 10:11 am

    For once, I agree with United. Those seats are premium, and completely unfair to those that paid (or qualified) to sit there.

  59. awayIgo

    September 11, 2019 at 11:40 am

    Definitely theft. He obviously was to cheap to pay or he would have been assigned that seat. Irrelevant if it was an economy seat. If the seat cost more to reserve than his, and he didn’t pay for it- that’s stealing!

    By definition stealing is acquiring possession or use of something that is not yours. Ownership ( or maybe rental) usually comes as a result of payment!

  60. cockpitvisit

    September 11, 2019 at 11:44 am

    As long as E+ isn’t a different class of service, moving should be fine. The fee for E+ is a reservation fee, so it guarantees the passenger that seat, that’s its value. It doesn’t preclude a pax from moving into a vacant E+ seat aboard the plane – just like charging for reserving window seats in advance doesn’t preclude a pax from moving into a vacant window seat on the plane.

    Unless you want to ban all seat changes altogether and force people e.g. to sit in the middle seat even if the aisle seat next to them is free. An idea for Ryanair perhaps?

  61. jrpallante

    September 11, 2019 at 12:49 pm

    This story was beat to death on TPG last week, but the comments on FT are far more sensible, reflecting an understanding of the real world and the airline industry. UA absolutely has to maintain the brand. The whiner had the option to pay more for a better seat, but he declined. This same entitled millennial would book a twin bed next to the elevator at the Ritz, and then expect an upgrade to the Presidential Suite “because it was just sitting empty.”

  62. cockpitvisit

    September 11, 2019 at 2:04 pm

    A presidential suite is a different room category. But the “entitled millennial” would expect to be moved to a similar twin bed room away from the elevator if one is empty. Same here. Even the airline it its fine print says you purchase a class of service and not a specific seat, hence there is no entitlement to that specific seat even if you bought a reservation for it!

  63. seattlebruce

    September 11, 2019 at 3:28 pm

    As studentff says, the question is where to draw the line.

    It’s always been cool to move to a better seat within the same cabin — full row to empty row, middle to aisle, non-exit row to exit row, etc. PE started as a few nicer rows for frequent fliers, and I think it was still OK for anyone to grab those seats once the doors closed. Now that the airlines are making a bigger deal about PE, partly to get more revenue and partly because those extra few inches really make a difference as the airlines keep squeezing in more seats, PE feels more like a separate cabin and it’s not surprising that they want to keep freeloaders out. But how about exit rows that are interspersed among the regular economy cabin? Or any other seat that would have cost more than the one you’re in? It’s not clear. Airlines certainly have the right to ban all moves but since that would be stupid, they have the challenge of drawing the line and communicating it.

  64. White Eagle

    September 11, 2019 at 4:47 pm

    I chuckled reading this article. Firstly, for UNITED to talk about “stealing” is truly rich. UNITED knows well about stealing: e.g., cancelling frequent flyer miles without notice; selling fixed rear bulkhead seats that do not recline, knocking customer’s teeth out, & many other UNITED cheapskate chicaneries, etc., etc. I now avoid UNITED like the airborne bubonic plague…never to be trusted or relied upon.

  65. PilgrimsProgress

    September 11, 2019 at 4:48 pm

    It is mean-spirited for United to prohibit seat changes within the same class of service. So now they will charge passengers for changing from middle seat to aisle seat. Or drag customers off the plane for changing seats? This idiocy was brought to life by the mean-spiritedness that masquerades as unbundling. If United unbundles then it is responsible for the meanness and conflict that ensue.

  66. Haloan

    Haloan

    September 11, 2019 at 4:52 pm

    I was on a Delta flight a few months ago and a guy attempted to move from Economy to Comfort Plus and he was told in no uncertain terms by a flight attendant that he couldn’t just move into that seat without paying for it. So he went back to his seat.

  67. Gizzabreak

    September 11, 2019 at 5:16 pm

    @jybrick. If you believe that changing passenger load distribution in an aircraft has “nothing to do with Bagram” (changing freight load distribution), that’s entirely your prerogative … but regardless of your understanding of aircraft loading dynamics, the aircraft remains an inanimate object that ‘sees’ only a movement in centre of gravity … potentially beyond controllable limits.

  68. BMGRAHAM

    September 11, 2019 at 6:21 pm

    Totally right unless he had status that entitled him to it for free

  69. Baracuda618

    September 12, 2019 at 7:56 am

    In this case, UA is correct. I always pay for either Business or Economy Comfort plus. One should be able to move within a class. However, one should not be able to move to a higher class without paying (unless, of course, they can prove that they are a status that allows the movement without additional cost).

  70. caromill

    October 6, 2019 at 6:04 pm

    However, I’ve been on UA flights where customers were moved from the last rows to the front of the cabin (E+) in order to balance the load. Each had an empty row. I was in an upgraded (United Silver) E+ seat with a full row and I would have been happy to have the chance to stretch out, but it wasn’t allowed.

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