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Are You Allowed to Give Up Your First Class Seat?

Are You Allowed to Give Up Your First Class Seat?
Taylor Rains

American Airlines cannot seem to avoid the spotlight these days. First, they re-sparked the “should I recline my seat” debate when a passenger’s reclined seat was punched by the disgruntled man behind her. Now, they just raised the question of “can an economy class passenger switch seats with a first-class passenger?” after a flight attendant claimed it was a security concern.

What Happened?

The incident that happened on the American flight was simple. A company CEO, Tony Sarsam, was flying with his employee, Adrienne Chance, but he was seated in first class and she was in economy. To be kind and give her a first-class experience, he offered to switch seats with her, to which she happily accepted.

About an hour into the flight, the flight attendant found out the two had changed seats and claimed that this was a “security” issue and was not allowed. Now, as someone who has worked in airline security, I’m not sure why she had security concerns. Sure, airline policy (if any) may have been broken, but I cannot think of any TSA regulations that would prevent an economy class passenger from moving to first class, or vice versa.

Airline’s Response

Mrs. Chance, who is a former Southwest employee, took to Twitter to tell her story. She posted the incident as well as the email response she got from American. The airline apologized for the event, offered her and her boss 10,000 miles to compensate, and explained the this is not policy. American policy does say switching seats during the meal service is prohibited but doesn’t restrict it at any other time.

Is this a Security Concern?

As far as I know, this is not a security issue. Yes, since 9/11, there has been more pressure on flight attendants to keep safety and security in mind, but I do think this particular flight attendant had a complete misunderstanding of her responsibilities and the regulations. Maybe her concern was that Mrs. Chance was now closer to the cockpit? However, that wouldn’t matter because she and the first-class passengers were all screened in the same manner through TSA. Furthermore, Southwest has open seating, and they cannot control who will be in the front of the plane or the back, so again, who sits near the cockpit is not regulated.

Sure, there may be SAFETY concerns to seat swapping, such as someone who is not able to assist in an emergency evacuation moving to the exit row (which doesn’t apply here), or for body identification purposes in the case of an accident, but safety is different than security.

The desire to switch seats could be relayed to the gate agent prior to boarding (although this doesn’t seem to be policy), but based on Mrs. Chance’s Twitter comments, she said her boss told the flight attendant his intention to switch with her, so it appears the flight attendant (or one of the others) knew about the swap, but it was not addressed until mid-flight. Regardless, if you ask me, this was just a bad judgment call by the flight attendant.

Have you ever been in the same situation as Mrs. Chance and her boss? Did the flight attendants make you move back? Let us know in the forum thread “Against the Rules to Give up Your First Class Seat?

View Comments (22)


  1. c2cflyer

    February 21, 2020 at 5:59 pm

    was this a southwest flight or an american flight? this article says it was both.

    “The incident that happened on the American flight was simple”

    “Furthermore, Southwest has open seating, and they cannot control who will be in the front of the plane ”

    seriously, articles on flyertalk are the worst.

  2. topman

    February 21, 2020 at 8:10 pm

    Overzealous FA making up the rules as they go

  3. SpartyAir

    February 22, 2020 at 4:43 am

    I told a flight attendant on United that I saw a military man come on the plane and I would offer to switch places with him as I was in first class. The flight attendant complimented me and said it was a nice gesture. So evidently on United, it is not a safety problem.

  4. Dublin_rfk

    February 22, 2020 at 4:48 am

    This must be an AA thing. I frequent a different airline and many times I’ve exchanged seats (my first to economy). Sometimes it’s my +1 who moves up sometimes it a uniformed military member.
    PS: With the former it’s self defense.

  5. Gynob001

    February 22, 2020 at 6:11 am

    To me, flight attendants and gate agents (or any Airport/Airline employees) are direct representative of the Gods-at least, they think so. Who am I to question them? I wait at the gate with everything ready, board when my time comes, get to my seat as quickly as possible, carry minimal luggage, and close my eyes. Even a “coffee with cream please” often gets ignored or is answered by “what?”. Most often I don’t even notice the take offs and landings. Never recline the seat or put the tray down.

  6. maynard7

    February 22, 2020 at 9:16 am

    There is no security concern. Just some power-hungry flight attendant determined to get his or her way. If somebody seated in economy wants to storm the cockpit all they have to do is walk 50 feet up there. Being seated in first-class only saves you a few seconds. That flight attendant really deserves to be disciplined. It’s just another way they make flying even more miserable

  7. edgewood49

    February 22, 2020 at 10:13 am

    Once on a EK second leg from DBX to JNB due to a change on our end we had a single FC seat and a coach seat, my wife said she would take it ” let’s just get to our safari” On boarding I spoke with the Purser to get her the best seat back there as possible expanding our circumstances during the flight I asked if I could sit back there allowing my wife to finish the flight up front and was told no if was against policy. I am a FF and have status but to no.

  8. tcspears

    February 23, 2020 at 8:40 am

    I mostly fly DL, not AA, but this matches up with my experiences with AA flight Attendants… They are rigid and love arguing semantics and confronting passengers, so it doesn’t surprise me that they would make a big deal out of this.

    I flew with United for years, and with Delta the last couple and will often buy a ticket for my wife. If I get upgraded, but she doesn’t, I’ll switch seats with her (for fear of my life), and it has never been an issue.

    AA flight attendants love confronting passengers, and love getting into arguments, and they know if they cry “security concern” , it means every pilot, FA, airport crew, et cetera… Will immediately support them and figure out what happened later. I saw this on United flights during my last years with them, every little thing would become a security issue, and they would be able to threaten the passenger, or have them removed.

  9. Taylor Rains

    February 23, 2020 at 2:49 pm

    C2cflyer, I was using Southwest as an example of why placing passengers near the flight deck door wasn’t a security issue. This happened on AA.

  10. Allan38103

    February 24, 2020 at 8:54 am

    Does this incident deserve a separate thread? A flight attendant made a mistake and made an incorrect statement. It’s NOT the airline’s policy.

  11. divrdrew

    February 25, 2020 at 10:37 am

    One of the main issues I have with flying AA is that the FAs seem to make up the rules as they go along. On an almost daily basis, an FA from AA is in the news for not following company policy. It’s no wonder why the airline can’t seem to get going in the right direction no matter what it does. Until the leadership gets EVERYONE on the same page, it’s going to more nonsense. A “security” issue? Really? Or hammering a Flagship First customer for expecting a turndown service (which is ADVERTISED by AA as a BENEFIT), or taking the side of a customer punching the back of a seat and giving the victim a passenger disturbance letter for recording the incident? Last time I checked, it was not illegal to take photos or videos on an airplane, as the FA claimed it was.

    There seems to be a never-ending saga coming from AA about its flight attendants going on power trips and making up the rules as they go along. Crazy!

  12. MitchR

    February 26, 2020 at 4:24 am

    I am a 30 plus year AAdvantage member, 15 year XP. I have noticed that since the “merger” a “we hate passengers” attitude seems to be spreading across the American culture. I am experiencing incidents in which staff (both FA’s and ground personnel) seem to be anxious to engage passengers and push them around. The worst are corporate employees flying on passes who waive their employee ID’s around expecting special privileges. I have lost count of the number of employees who have pushed past me in security lines and boarding lines, a few actually physically pushed me out of the way when I didn’t move fast enough. I had a female employee with her ESA poodle push past me in the TSA Pre line and demand to pass through as a known traveler. When her ID didn’t scan (probably because she was corporate staff travelling on a pass) she went off on the TSA Agent. The Airline doesn’t seem to care and customer service has become a walled off group that responds weeks after an issue by not reading complaints and cutting and pasting excuses into nonresponsive emails.

  13. jrpallante

    February 26, 2020 at 4:24 am

    The story seems suspicious. There is probably more to the story, but don’t expect to find details in a FT story. On several occasions, I have offered my first class seat to military personnel…no problem. When traveling with my family of four, I usually get one (tax deductible) seat in first class in my name and 3 seats in economy. My wife usually takes the first class seat, regardless of the name on the ticket.

  14. vsevolod4


    February 26, 2020 at 5:02 am

    Raspberries to the FA.

    When traveling with a significant other, and you get the upgrade and she doesn’t … it is not only customary but mandatory for a gentleman to offer the seat to her (and if she has any grace, she would often demur). When swapping, I do let the FA know, and very often I will continue to be served free drinks/wine in the back. At least on UA they appear to respect and reward gallantry.

    Of course if you really want to spend time with her, you would arrange the last minute voluntary downgrade and both seat in the back together. If the FAs know that you’ve done that, you often continue to get special treatment, over and above the one free drink/meal you get as 1K/GS, I’ve gotten bottles of Champagne, etc.

    I’ve swapped F seats with men in uniform, with a pregnant woman, a wide-eyed kid on the way to college, a first time flyer and others — I’m not bragging here, just stating facts. Especially on short-haul flights where F fills up but coach is wide open, what is banal to the lifetime flyer is a treat to someone who seldom or never experiences it.

    Never have I had crew complain. They may on occasion be confused but if you tell them you gave 2B to the pregnant woman that’s listed in your seat, you get thanks and support, not scolding and derision.

    Build up karma and it rewards you tenfold.

  15. Marko63

    February 26, 2020 at 5:12 am

    My wife and I were flying from HNL to ATL. I was in DL ONE, she was in comfort plus. It is about an eight hour flight.
    We agreed to switch halfway through. Under cover of darkness this was discreetly accomplished.
    Before anyone challenges my chivalry, I did what my wife requested!

  16. DancesWithWords

    February 26, 2020 at 5:35 am

    Last October, I flew from ORD to HND on ANA with three family members. I’d been able to upgrade three of us from Business to First, but one daughter was still “stuck” in Business. I begged the gate agents and FAs to let us switch so she could enjoy the First Class experience, but they wouldn’t budge :-( She was seated literally ONE row behind me, so it’s hard to see how that would be either a safety or security issue, but … they make the rules, I guess :-/

  17. holland

    February 26, 2020 at 5:35 am

    Not an issue on UA. I asked the GA to switch my seat with an old friend from school who I bumped into in the boarding area, and she couldn’t (because my friend has a basic economy ticket and wouldn’t qualify for my free upgrade), so we swapped seats as we boarded. Nobody cared as long as it was an “unofficial” change…. we didn’t tell anyone, just did it. I’m sure when they came to the meal service they realized my female friend wasn’t “Mr Holland” in 2C. :)

  18. taina2

    February 26, 2020 at 5:42 am

    I have given up my first class seat to uniformed military at least twice with no problems.

  19. polinka

    February 26, 2020 at 7:52 am

    I concur that especially with AA (but also UA) every little thing gets escalated to “security issue”. It’s maddening.

  20. SAPMAN

    February 26, 2020 at 10:21 am

    I wonder if everyone agrees that if a couple can switch seats back and forth on a long flight to get free drinks and food and take a nap, if that is ok. And a high level freq flyer gets upgraded and then gives that some non elite, while another freq flyer who was next on the list sits in the back.

  21. sscywong

    February 27, 2020 at 12:58 am

    Security concern can be in the sense that someone may switch seats in the middle of a flight, do some searching in the overhead bins and then returning to the aft of the plane i.e. if a passenger lost something and believe there’s a thief, risk of being caught red handed faced by the thief is reduced. This is particularly true for long haul flights when most people are sleeping in the middle of the flight

  22. moreardon

    February 29, 2020 at 4:20 am

    I flew with my neice SYD to LHR on Qantas. Me in first, her in economy. I requested to swap for a while as her ankles were badly swollen & there wasn’t even a footrest in economy. They would not allow it even though First was nearly empty but let us both sit in Business for the rest of the journey wghich was also empty.

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