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seat saving

Etiquette Alert: To Save Seats or Not to Save Seats on the Plane?

Most travelers adhere to a list unspoken rules and courtesies aboard commercial aircraft. Don’t kick the seat in front of you. Don’t bring a tuna fish sandwich aboard. Don’t elbow your seat mate off the armrest.

Seat Saving: Fair Play or a Travel Faux Pas?

But the unique flying experience aboard Southwest requires a few additions to that list, notably the practice of saving seats. Seasoned Southwest travelers have likely encountered or even participated in the practice. For the uninitiated, a recent article in the Arizona Republic sets the scene:

Southwest, the nation’s largest domestic carrier, gets plenty of love … But it attracts plenty of disdain, too, for its one-of-a-kind boarding process. Passengers are assigned a boarding group and sit in any open seat when it’s their turn to board. 

The open-seating system spawns seat saving, in which people who board first save seats for spouses, kids, friends and co-workers farther back in line, leaving fewer choices for other passengers. It’s the airline version of saving seats at the movies or hotel pool.

Not surprisingly, seat saving is a highly contentious issue. On one hand, Southwest’s boarding process is loosely organized by design. There’s no rule against seat saving, and therefore no concrete reason for passengers to shun the practice. And since traveling partners may be split into different boarding groups … why not? It’s a free-for-all once you’re onboard. Save that seat.

On the other hand, Southwest sells Early Bird Check-in and upgraded boarding precisely so travelers can, for a fee, have first dibs on the best seats. But whether you pay for the privilege or simply land in Group A, seat-saving unfairly diminishes the choices available to you. If the first dozen or so passengers are each saving seats for other passengers, what’s the point?

Southwest’s Stance on Seat Saving

Southwest’s position on the topic seems to be a big shrug. The airline leaves it to passengers and flight crew to work out any difficulties in the aisles.

Seat Saving with Courtesy

So, fellow travelers, what would you do? Personally I think seat-saving is acceptable … to a degree. Saving one seat for your partner? Sure. But saving a whole row really isn’t fair to your fellow travelers.

Context matters as well. If you’re in Group A and your partner is several groups behind you, maybe saving a seat isn’t realistic. Lots of people will be looking for seats and, after all, the seats are technically unassigned. Same goes for a sold out flight. But if your partner needs an aisle seat, perhaps for some kind of health issue, then by all means fight for that seat. And remember, you can always politely ask to change seats once the plane fills up.

Ultimately, everyone is going to get where they’re going. And while most of us would prefer to sit with our friends or family while doing so, most of us also read, watch a movie, or fall asleep while up in the air. Does it really matter who’s sitting next to you?

Readers, fess up: Have you saved a seat aboard Southwest? Do you think it’s a fair practice? Let us know in the comments below.

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