American Airlines flight has mystery passengers try to solve

Frequent travelers are well aware of the fact that rules and policies for flying differ between airlines.

Among the differences passengers observe after traveling with multiple carriers are the various procedures for boarding, fees for luggage and carry-on bags, and requirements for loyalty programs.

Related: Southwest Airlines making a major onboard change

But a rare sight on a recent American Airlines  (AAL) – Get Free Report flight became the subject of some procedural discussion among passengers around another airline policy nuance — namely, seat upgrades.

The very subject evokes memories of a not-too-distant past, when a glimpse of an empty seat in a more desirable location — once all passengers had boarded and the doors had closed — was a simple invitation to take it.

On some occasions, on flights that were light with passengers, a traveler might take an entire row of empty seats without so much as a question being asked from the flight crew.

Currently, however, the reality around changing seats onboard an aircraft is very different. When attempting to change seats, it’s always advisable to ask a flight attendant first.

And often, if a passenger is looking to sit somewhere with more legroom such as an exit row, there is a seat upsell charge involved — and that should generally be taken care of at the gate before boarding.

An American Airlines airplane in flight. The appearance of an empty seat in first class prompted some speculation among travelers about the rare occurrence.

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The unlikely event of an empty seat in first class

Recently, a travel expert had boarded an American Airlines flight and was surprised to find, when the doors were closed, that an empty seat next to him in first class remained empty.

“Yesterday afternoon I flew American Airlines first class from New York to Miami. I had the unthinkable luxury (well, at least on U.S. airlines) of an empty seat next to me, though it came at the expense of someone else’s upgrade,” wrote Ben Schlappig of One Mile At a Time on Jan. 15.  “This is the first time that I’ve personally witnessed something like this on American, so it’s certainly an isolated incident.”

It is extremely rare to see an unused seat in first class on American, because the airline offers unlimited complimentary upgrades to its elite members, of which there are usually a significant number sitting in economy.

“I don’t remember the last time I’ve seen an empty seat in first class on a mainline domestic American jet,” Schlappig wrote. “Perhaps a few times I’ve been on a regional jet during a very off peak period where there were some empty seats, but that’s still rare.”

“Presumably there was someone who booked this seat but then didn’t show up,” he continued. “In these situations it’s typically policy that the gate agent will come onboard and upgrade the next person on the upgrade list who is seated in economy. I find that American is quite consistent about this, and it’s rare for gate agents to not follow policy.”

Speculation about why the seat was left empty followed.

“I think the next logical question is whether the first class seat next to me was left empty due to laziness on the part of gate agents, or was there another explanation?” Schlappig asked. “There’s only one possible (excusable) explanation I can come up with for why the upgrade wasn’t cleared. Even before the flight left, it was showing an on-time departure but an arrival 18 minutes behind schedule, presumably due to a longer than usual flight time.”

“For gate agents, the number one priority is getting a flight out on-time, so perhaps there was pressure to get out this flight as soon as possible, especially with the anticipated arrival delay,” he added.

Others offer theories to solve the mystery

Other regular flyers suggested reasons why the first class seat may have remained empty.

“The person who was passed over for the upgrade might have needed two seats,” wrote a commenter to the story identifying themself as Lee. “I would have taken the one seat and given it to my travel companion. And, I’d stay in back.”

Another traveler suggested a few possibilities.

“Could’ve been travelers who chose to remain with their travel companions. Could’ve been no-shows or busted connections. Could’ve been people who stood by and cleared on an earlier flight,” suggested Chris Bacon in the comments. “To simply blame it on ‘laziness’ by the gate agents or the need to maintain an on-time departure is unfair to both the employee and the company.

Schlappig also shared a passenger interaction with regard to the empty seat that happened during the flight.

“At roughly the halfway point of the flight, someone came up to the row I was seated in and said to me, ‘Do you mind if I sit here?’ I responded, ‘I don’t mind, but you might have to take it up with the crew,'” Schlappig wrote. “After all, I didn’t pay for the extra seat, so it’s not really my business.”

The passenger took the seat and then started reading a book, Schlappig said. A flight attendant soon appeared and the ensuing conversation, according to Schlappig, went like this:

Flight attendant: “Sir, what’s your original seat?”

Passenger: “I was in 17D, but there’s someone in my seat, so I need a different one.”

Flight attendant: “Sorry, there’s someone in your seat now?”

Passenger: “Well, the guy next to me is spilling over into my seat, he’s very large, it’s really not comfortable.”

Flight attendant: “I’m sorry, I can’t have you sitting here. But if you’d like, I can try to find you another seat in economy.”

“Suddenly he was very happy with returning to his exit row aisle seat, and didn’t need her assistance to move anymore,” wrote Schlappig.

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