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.


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