We’ve all been there: for whatever reason you didn’t get first pick of the seats on your flight, it’s a full one, and you’re in the dreaded middle seat. Unfortunately, you’re in for a bit of a squish between two fellow passengers. But with a bit of etiquette you don’t have to be entirely miserable, and with a bit of planning you can avoid it next time.

A man is reading a kind on a plane
The middle seat: a cramped, crowded experience © Shutterstock

It doesn’t help that airplane seats have, in many cases — and especially on longhaul flights — got narrower. Part of this is airliner design by Boeing especially, and part of it is airlines seeking to make the most out of their investment.

For example, when the Boeing 777 first started flying some twenty-five years ago, it had nine economy seats in every row with most airlines, except for really short hops like high-density Japanese domestic routes when there were ten seats. Nowadays, the vast majority of them, even on expensive airlines, have ten seats abreast.  

The view from a row on a plane. It's slightly blurry.
Most passengers prefer a window or an aisle seat for comfort © Shutterstock

Main rule: armrests go to the poor soul in the middle 

First up, the really big issue: middle passenger gets the armrests. The window passengers can lean up against the wall of the plane, the aisle passenger can lean outwards into the aisle, and the poor old person in the middle at least gets to put their arms somewhere comfortable.

Every so often the companies that make airline seats try to figure out how to create a sculpted armrest that makes all this clear, but the idea hasn’t yet really taken off. If you’re stuck in the middle seat and your window or aisle seat neighbour starts getting shirty, try explaining just that, but kindly of course. Travel is stressful enough that anyone who can keep their cool really ought to try.

If it all gets a little much, or if there’s a reason not to be confrontational with the person, perhaps go talk to a flight attendant after takeoff and see if you can be reseated. After all, if your neighbours are being unreasonable over something small like this, you don’t want to be stuck with them for the whole flight. 

Read more: Why do we have to raise airplane window blinds before landing?

(That said, if they’re really acting strangely, or even more worryingly if they’re the worse for wear for alcohol, drugs or something else, you should absolutely go see the crew before departure. People without the use of their faculties on a plane are a danger to themselves and others, and shouldn’t fly — in fact, it’s illegal to do so.) 

Skip the middle seat if something better’s available, although be guided by the crew.

Next rule: it is absolutely okay, even encouraged, to slide over to either the window or the aisle seat if nobody is sitting there after the doors close and the plane is getting ready to fly. Yes, probably even if the crew ask people to remain in their assigned seats, which is really designed to make sure that all the people on a lightly loaded plane don’t go sit up front and change its centre of gravity.

That’s why changing rows in the plane is sometimes an issue, but moving from 28B to 28C isn’t likely to cause any real problems. Of course, if a crewmember insists — if the window seat’s broken for some reason, say — you should absolutely follow their instructions. 

Row of seats on a plane.jpg
 Pre-booking seats will help avoid being crammed in the middle © Shutterstock

Avoid the middle seat entirely if you can

But there are ways to avoid that dreaded middle seat, mostly by picking a certain type of plane.

On longer flights, the holy grail for this is the dear old Boeing 767, a plane which is arranged in a 2-3-2 layout, meaning there’s only one middle seat in each row of seven passengers. (There are a very few ultra-high-density versions with insanely narrow seats in a 2-4-2 configuration, largely operated by Russian low-cost airlines, or on charter airlines that hire out their planes to other airlines, but these really are rare.)

The Airbus A330 and A340 are your next best choice on most airlines: they’ve got a 2-4-2 layout that means if you can grab a seat in the window pair there’s no middle there. Note, however, that some of these planes are in a high-density 3-3-3 version, including those operated by AirAsia X and cheap airlines from the French-speaking world like Air Transat, Air Caraïbes and so on.

On shorter flights, pick the Embraer E-Jet family, which contains the E170, E175, E190, E195 and E2 planes. These are great little jets with a 2-2 layout that means no middle seat for anyone. (There’s no middle seat in an ATR or Q400 turboprop either, but these are pretty narrow so I don’t recommend them unless there’s no other choice.)  

Read more: Why you should never travel with just a mobile boarding pass

The Airbus A220, which began its life as the Bombardier C Series, is another great pick, because it has 18-inch-wide seats in the windows and aisles and a delightful 19-inch-wide seats in its one middle seat. Yes, one: the layout is 2-3 so only one side of the plane even has middle seats to begin with.

Also as a rule, pick an Airbus A320 rather than a Boeing 737, because it’s about fifteen centimetres, or half a foot, wider. Most airlines use this extra space to install wider seats — although some low-cost carriers make the aisle wider instead.

But if you’re stuck there, as I’ve been, sometimes you just have to grin, bear it, and remember that you’re flying at nearly the speed of sound through the sky and sometimes you have to be a little bit zen about where you’re sitting. 

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