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Are You Allowed to Give Up Your First Class Seat?

American Airlines First Class

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?

moreardon February 29, 2020

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.

sscywong February 27, 2020

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

SAPMAN February 26, 2020

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.

polinka February 26, 2020

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

taina2 February 26, 2020

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