How to snag an empty seat next to you, through planning, polite pleas and a little luck.
It doesn’t take a seasoned traveler to know that flights are closer to full than ever. Passengers jockey for overhead space, wrestle over an armrest or are smacked by a reclining seat — at least those relegated to economy.
But on every flight, a couple of passengers always seem to sit a little easier. As the cabin door closes, they are the few, the lucky, who managed to snag an empty seat next to them.
It is the airline equivalent of Willy Wonka’s golden ticket. More wiggle room. Extra space for stuff. No chatty neighbor. And the best part? These luxuries all come at no extra cost.
With a little planning and a little bit of luck, this can happen to you on your next flight.
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I have empty-seat syndrome, a near manic obsession with trying to secure the best possible spot on a flight. I study airplane configurations. I check seating maps. I sweet-talk gate agents.
While the chances are low, the payoff can be significant. The middle seat next to me was empty on a nearly 15-hour trip from New York to Johannesburg on South African Airways. Going to Rome, I had a whole row to myself on an American Airlines flight.
The airlines would prefer this never happened. An empty seat to them means a lost fare and lower profit.
In recent years, they have become pretty good at making sure their flights are packed to capacity. The industry’s load factor, airline terminology for the percentage of seats that are filled, has been largely rising over the last decade to nearly 80 percent last year, according to the International Air Transport Association.
“It’s hard to game the system,” said John F. Thomas, an industry analyst with L.E.K. Consulting in Boston. “Airlines are running at record load levels.”
For me, the game begins before I even book a ticket. When I traveled to Latvia and Lithuania last year, my main options from New York were connecting through Frankfurt, Moscow or Warsaw. Frankfurt had the most options with Lufthansa. That’s where I went because my assumption is that multiple carriers and departure times to the same destination will increase my chances.
In the same vein, I look for flights at odd hours, which are less popular with travelers.
Then I look at a plane’s configuration on SeatGuru, which has seat maps for every plane and most airlines, since carriers often arrange cabins differently.
On an international flight, I prefer a nine-seat row in coach, where seats are grouped in threes. This means most rows have three middle seats, the least appealing piece of real estate on any plane and the last to fill up. An eight-seat configuration (with a two-four-two layout) has only two middle seats. Simple mathematics.
Then, when I book the flight, I choose an aisle seat toward the back of the plane. The front tends to fill up faster, and the back last because passengers generally want to get off quickly. I also aim for a row where the middle seat is empty, but where the window or aisle is already booked.
On international flights, where the planes are usually bigger, I also stick to the center section. Those middle seats are the farthest from the window, which to others can feel the most claustrophobic on cramped flights.
After picking my seat, I check the carrier’s website again and again to see how the plane is filling up. If the middle seat next to me is suddenly occupied, I try to move to a better spot.
A week out, the carrier’s seat map can change frequently. Elite fliers are upgraded. Airlines unblock seats. The 24-hour mark, when many airlines allow passengers to check in online, can set off a whole new wave of changes.
“That is when you really have the most movement, and the seats you don’t have to pay for open up,” said Jami Counter, the senior director of flights for TripAdvisor.
I make one last attempt at the airport. Agents can tell you how close to full a flight is and the likelihood that an empty seat will stay empty once passengers on standby are taken care of. Politeness pays. So does a plaintive plea.
If you finally board the plane and see an empty seat in your row, don’t get too confident. Everything can still change in the last 30 minutes before the plane leaves. Some frequent fliers may try to catch an earlier flight. Or passengers from a canceled flight are rebooked on yours. Until the cabin door closes, that empty seat can always disappear.
Next month, I’m headed to Thailand on vacation, and the panic has already set in. My cheap fare on Cathay Pacific doesn’t allow me to pick a seat until two days out.
Needless to say, I plan to log on exactly 48 hours beforehand (setting my alarm clock for 1:30 a.m.) to make sure I can choose the best seat on the plane.