Why you can't move into that empty extra legroom seat on a plane

Krunal Patel didn't mind his window seat on a United Airlines flight from Chicago to Rochester, New York, in early September, but he spied a better one.

Rows of them.

So he asked a flight attendant if he could move out of crowded row 22 into a row with empty seats.

The response: It'll cost you. The seats were Economy Plus seats, extra legroom seats United peddles to passengers for a fee during or after ticket booking.

Patel, a 32-year-old addiction specialist nurse, turned to Twitter from his seat to criticise the policy. United issued its stock response on the topic: Letting passengers move to those seats, it said, is "not fair to the customers who did pay for the upgrade."

Patel pressed the issue, arguing that there's no harm in letting passengers move to empty seats after the doors closed so they can have a better flight experience.

United fired back with an analogy that went viral.

"The customers who choose to pay for economy plus are then afforded that extra space. If you were to purchase a Toyota, you would not be able to drive off with a Lexus, because it was empty."

Patel said in an interview that he didn't know they were Economy Plus seats when he asked to move. But he maintains passengers should be able to move into them once the plane is in the air and says flight attendants on some flights have allowed him to when he asked. Unlike first class seats, where passengers get free food, drink and other perks, the main feature of Economy Plus is extra legroom. (American and Delta, in contrast, offer free drinks as a perk in their extra legroom seats.)


"It's literally just legroom," he said. "The company doesn't lose money by letting passengers move up. They can only win in customer satisfaction."

Wherever you fall on the debate - Patel was slammed as a whiny cheapskate and worse on Twitter and deactivated his account for a week - the stream of questions airlines field about their cushier economy seats underscores passenger confusion when it comes to seat options.

Unlike first class or business class cabins, which are unmistakable as you board the plane and often curtained off in flight, it's easy to overlook the section of premium seats that extend from the start of the economy cabin through the exit row seats on United, American and Delta when boarding.

Yes, they have extra legroom, but there's no partition that screams this is a special seating section, at least on domestic flights.

Airlines carved up the economy cabin for two reasons: to create a perk for frequent fliers, who are upgraded to the more plush economy seats for free when available, and to cash in on travellers who want something comfier than a standard economy seat.

Unlike so-called preferred seats - ordinary aisle, middle and window seats scattered throughout the plane, which airlines also charge to reserve because they are in what the airline considers a favourable location on the plane - these seats come with extra legroom and other perks.


See also: No, I'm not giving up my window seat so your family can sit together

See also: The 11 things some travellers think they're entitled to (but they're not)