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Surviving the Middle Seat

airplane plane boy laptop air travelWhat's worse: sitting in a middle seat on a long flight or having a hole drilled in your head? More than half of respondents to a recent survey would rather go to the dentist than tell a seatmate, "Excuse me; I need to go to the bathroom."

The survey, commissioned by 3M and run by the Global Strategy Group, also found that:
  • A majority of Americans would rather get stuck in traffic (56 percent) or go on a blind date (also 56 percent) than sit in the middle seat on a full flight.

  • People dislike the middle seat so much that they go to great lengths to avoid it altogether. Fifty percent of people say they would be likely to take an aisle seat being offered on the next available flight, while one in five Americans (20 percent) say they would actually stay overnight at an airport hotel for an aisle seat on the first flight the next morning.

  • Nine percent of Americans report that they would refuse to sit in the middle seat on a full flight if it were more than one to two hours.
The survey also determined the top five middle seat annoyances as follows (the survey allowed multiple answers, so the stats below reflect the percentage of people who chose each option):
  • Having a nosy seatmate peering over your shoulder (84 percent)
  • Crawling over someone to get to the bathroom (83 percent)
  • Not being able to stretch out (83 percent)
  • Having an overweight seatmate on either side of you (80 percent)
  • Not having a place to rest your head (71 percent)
As airlines reduce capacity, continue in the old practice of overbooking, and reduce and eliminate (or charge for) opportunities to make changes to our airline reservations, frequent travelers are almost doomed to a middle seat experience at some point. Here are my tips for avoiding and, if need be, surviving the dreaded middle seat on your next flight.

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1. Make a narrow escape.
Typically your first chance to avoid the middle seat is to select an aisle or window when you first book your flight. (This is free on some airlines and available for a fee on others.) If only middle seats or available or you're pre-assigned to one despite your preferences, it might still be possible to make a last-minute escape not only out of that middle seat but into a far better seat. A few days before you fly, contact the airline to inquire if any better seats have become available, or even if you can pay for an affordable upgrade.

If this fails (it often will), you can try again at check-in, where you may have much better success. I would suggest giving this a try using online check-in, which is available up to 24 hours before most flights. You can often pick your seat assignment during online check-in, although, as noted above, it costs an extra fee on some airlines. If you hate the middle seat as much as the survey suggests most people do, the fee may be worth it. In my own experience, however, I have frequently found the option to change to a better seat unavailable using online check-in, as the best seats are hard to come by -- bad seats are easy!

If you don't have any luck online, you can try again at the airport check-in counter -- just be sure to arrive early to get ahead of everyone else trying to do the same thing. You can increase your chances by not only asking for a seat change or an affordable upgrade, but also inquiring whether you might be booked into an exit row seat (which may cost extra). If the check-in agents are unable to do this for you, I suggest you try again at the gate. These folks have final say on seating arrangements, and in my experience this last opportunity is also your best opportunity. Your odds get better if you are among the first in line, are polite, and have some mitigating circumstance (this is the time to speak up if you're a frequent flier on that airline or if you're so tall that sitting in a middle seat is particularly uncomfortable for you).

How to Get a Better Airplane Seat

2. Politely assume priority placement on the armrests.
Travelers get confused about proper armrest etiquette on full planes, but my rule of thumb has worked well for me over many years and countless flights: the person in the middle seat has priority when it comes to positioning on the armrests on both sides. If the person in the middle seat prefers to stake out the space closest to the seatback, he gets it, and other folks in more comfortable seats get the slightly less comfortable part of the armrest. I've only sat next to a few folks who seemed to think they were entitled to all the space around them irrespective of seat assignments, and they had no respect for personal space of any stripe or type -- I think a couple of them would have put on my headphones or eaten my food if I had allowed it. (See 10 Annoying Habits of Our Fellow Travelers.

3. 2-3-2 beats 3-3.
If you do end up in a middle seat, hope that it is on a plane with 2-3-2 seating configuration rather than 3-3 or the like. There are two reasons for this: first of all, there are far fewer middle seats (only one per row) on a 2-3-2 plane than on a 3-3 plane (which have two per row), and if any seats are open, chances are better that you can slip into an aisle or window seat. Second, in the 2-3-2 configuration, your neighbors are both in aisle seats, so chances double that at least one of them will be awake and amenable to allowing you to get up now and then.

airport toilets lavatory restroom bathroom4. Go before you go.
If ever there was a time to behave like a 4-year-old and visit the lavatory in the airport immediately before leaving, this is it.

5. Beat feet before they start sawing wood.
If you do need to get up from your seat, do so before the person in the aisle seat starts watching the movie, pulls out a book, opens her laptop, falls asleep, etc.

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6. Look both ways.
If your aircraft has a window-middle-aisle configuration, you might also want to get up and out of your seat before the person in the window seat falls asleep, giving him the opportunity to get up at the same time you do. Otherwise not only might you get trapped inside a sleeping person in the aisle seat as above, but when you finally settle in yourself, you may also be forced to get up by the person in the window seat.

7. Use sleep and comfort aids.
By this I don't mean drugs, but rather neck pillows, eye covers, noise-canceling headphones and other products that make it possible to sleep or rest fully while sitting straight up with nothing to lean on. Check out Sleeping on Planes for more tips and ideas.

8. Hide in plain sight.
In a middle seat, your exposure to neighbors is doubled, thereby also doubling your chances of having an overly talkative or prying neighbor. This is great if you're interested in a long chat, but if not, employ some of the products above, even as a decoy, to telegraph your unavailability to garrulous seatmates. Again, think eye masks, noise-canceling headphones, books, magazines, iPod earphones ... anything that closes off some of your senses to your neighbor's invasive utterances will do the trick.

9. Hide in your work.
This one brings us to 3M's stake in doing the survey in the first place: the company sells computer privacy filters that are designed to hide your laptop screen from neighboring seatmates. With Wi-Fi being added to more planes all the time, and new netbooks and tablets better suited than bulkier laptops to the confines of coach class, the airplane is more than ever before a place to work, watch movies and surf the Web. Burying yourself in the work directly in front of you can grant you some escape from the close quarters of flesh on all sides.

10. Lighten your carry-on load.
Now that the airlines are charging to check any and all bags, this tip may win you some legroom but lose you some money. Even so -- if you are already checking bags, consider putting a bit more of your belongings into the checked bags so you have little or no stuff to cram under the seat in front of you. The middle seat is cramped enough without also giving up all of your legroom to a backpack filled with absolutely nothing you need in flight.

airplane plane seats couple toast11. Surrender.
If you end up in a middle seat for a flight of any duration, it will help if you accept early on that it ain't gonna be fun, easy or comfortable, so you might as well make the best of it. It's going to be a slog, but sooner or later you will find yourself on the ground, with no one banging your elbows or slamming your knees. In other words, as the story says, this too shall pass.

While we're on the topic, what are your preferences for an airplane seat? Vote in our poll!

Go Anyway,
Ed Hewitt
TravelersEd@aol.com
Features Editor
IndependentTraveler.com
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