a row of seats with screens on the back

If it happened to you, you’d like it too…

Despite claims that two words will always get you an upgrade, many of the world’s most frequent flyers will wind up flying in economy from time to time. And when they do, on any decent airline, their experience is rarely identical to the rest of the passengers on board making due with the non pointy end. In fact, there’s a little known courtesy trick airlines pull for top passengers, and it might be the only thing keeping you from getting one of those great seats with extra legroom. Did you know airlines block out seats so people can’t sit next to important customers?

a row of seats in an airplaneIt’s A Fact

When a top customer winds up flying economy, airlines do their best to make the experience as pleasant as possible, by blocking out the seat next to the customer, whenever space permits. On full flights, there’s obviously nothing that can be done, but if there’s that “one and only empty seat” you can bet it’s next to a frequent flyer. That’s right – if you wondered why 15B wasn’t available, and saw it still wasn’t taken after boarding completed, it’s because the airline blocked out 15B, to make sure their elite frequent flyer in 15A doesn’t have to make conversation with you.

How To Check

Using tools like ExpertFlyer, you can see what seats are available, what seats are unavailable, and more intriguingly – what seats are blocked out. Now – some seats will always be blocked out for things like families, or VIP’s but if you ever see a flight where a bunch of random seats are “X’ed” out, it’s because there’s a frequent flyer sitting there, and the airline is trying to convince them that coach isn’t so bad after all, by keeping seat neighbors away. You’ll see this enviable perk on longer flights like transcontinental or intercontinental overnighters, basically – the flights when it really counts…

And Other Perks Too

Ever wondered why the customer in 33B was getting all the laughs from the crew, and perhaps a decent glass of wine magically made its way down the aisle – in an actual glass? Airlines regularly dole out extra freebies, and even some business class champagne to customers with high elite flyer status when they’re forced to fly the way 96% of travelers get around. So, next time you’re sat there wondering who on earth that “special” person may be, just assume the traveler with the empty seat holds either top tier, or second to top tier status with the airline, and try not to be too jealous about it.

After all, there are lots of shortcuts to gain elite status for yourself. 

Gilbert Ott

Gilbert Ott is an ever curious traveler and one of the world's leading travel experts. His adventures take him all over the globe, often spanning over 200,000 miles a year and his travel exploits are regularly...

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  1. I don’t know what airline you fly with, but I have never, ever seen this happen… in my experience (and I have held top status with several airlines including UA, AA, DL) if you fly in the back, you’re in the back.

    1. I have OneWorld Emerald via BA. On several occasions flying BA economy or premium economy, I’ve noticed that the seat next to me happened to be empty if the flight wasn’t full. On American Airlines flights, Emerald gets you a free snack box and cocktail when flying within the US on economy.

      I’ve occasionally been offered Champagne or amenity kits from Club World on overnight economy flights on BA as a Gold member.

      So yes, while it’s not a guarantee, these little perks do happen.

  2. As a UA 1K I’m offered free snacks boxes or alcoholic drinks in coach on flights longer than 3 hours. The FAs have smart phones identifying where the passengers are seated.

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