Why You Can't Sit In First Class (Even When It's Empty)

If you book a basic economy ticket for a flight, you’re left with whatever crappy seats the airline wants to give you, whether it’s at the back of the plane or just a middle seat in a row that won’t recline.

When you see row after row of empty first-class or business-class seats as you board, you might think to yourself: Why not trade up? You silently grab your belongings and make your way to the empty first-class row, hoping a flight attendant will look past it.

Well, there are a few reasons why airlines don’t want passengers to “sneak” into a first-class row, no matter how stealthy they are. For one, most basic economy passengers are ineligible for any kind of upgrade, anyway; it’s a rule that’s built into your fare class and ticket. But for any passenger, generally, airlines opt to keep these rows empty — even if it makes virtually zero difference to their bottom line.

Here’s the deal: In the eyes of airlines, it’s stealing. By their logic, you are simply taking a seat you didn’t purchase, and technically, it’d be unfair for one passenger to grab an upgraded seat over another. Back in September, United Airlines made headlines over an exchange with a traveller who simply wanted to nab a better seat in an empty Economy Plus section on their flight.

“What’s the point of empty seats if they can be filled and your customers can have a better experience?” the traveller in question wrote on Twitter. United fought back: “... If you were to purchase a Toyota, you would not be able to drive off with a Lexus, because it was empty.”

In other words, yes, airlines are terrible and there’s not a whole lot you can do. And even if you do successfully drive off with a Lexus as the flight departs, don’t be assured you’ve gotten away with it just yet; flight attendants are fully aware of who should be sat in each respective seat in a premium section. (In a story for the Los Angeles Times, author and flight attendant Elliott Hester noted that attendants are explicitly required to challenge any premium-class interlopers.)

While the rules may not be explicit in an airline’s contract of carriage, you’ll hear frequent stories of passengers who’ve attempted to “self-upgrade” have been asked to pay the cost of the ticket then and there or even threatened with arrest; over on the FlyerTalk Forums, one traveller said he’d witnessed a fellow passenger being arrested for sneaking into a first-class seat shortly after landing.

Where does this leave you? Well, we’re not advocating you to break any laws or anything, but simply asking a flight attendant before you make the change can’t hurt. If we’re being honest, it probably won’t work, but at least you’re helping them avoid an awkward confrontation mid-flight.


    If there's literally nobody in first or business, the airline may choose to upgrade it's highest-level loyalty customers. However, they're extremely unlikely to do so if there's even one person in that class.

    Why? Well, imagine if you're that person who's paid for the premium ticket. Moving people who paid less for their ticket into the other seats:
    1) De-values the ticket price you paid.
    2) Reduces the quality of your experience.

    Put bluntly, it's much nicer to fly alone in first/business class, than it is to fly in a crowded first/business class.

    ... and if people can buy cheaper tickets and sneak or upgrade their way into first-class, that makes you less likely to pay the full ticket price for first-class next time.

    Entitlement warning should have been posted at the beginning of this article.

    "Here’s the deal: In the eyes of airlines, it’s stealing."--- And anyone with a moral compass.

    "If you were to purchase a Toyota, you would not be able to drive off with a Lexus, because it was empty.”
    In other words, yes, airlines are terrible and there’s not a whole lot you can do."----In other words you want them to give you something you didn't pay? Why stop at first class seats? I don't see why they don't give you the airplane sitting on the tarmac, after all no one is using it.

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