Top 10 Ways to Avoid or Survive the Airplane Center Seat

Doomed to the middle seat on Southwest, or another airline? Here's how to navigate the cramped skies

Airplane-center-seat
Before they're filled with passengers, airplane center seats look comfy enough.
Southwest-logo
The Southwest logo.

I’ve forgetten to check in 24 hours in advance of my Southwest Airlines return flight. This dictates a “C” boarding pass. And sentences me to a center seat. Arriving at McCarron International Airport in Las Vegas I wonder: Can I survive, or even avoid, the flying torture chamber that is the middle seat?

Then comes the dragonglass daggers. That’s what seems to shoot out of the eyes of the female passengers in the aisle and window seats of the back-of-the-bird row of the plane to which I’ve advanced.

It’s a completely full flight. Somebody will have to sit elbow-to-elbow with what appears to be a mother and teenaged daughter. Even so, when I ask if the seat between them is taken, they both fry me with eye lasers.

The pair stand up and harrumph into the aisle. Neither is talking to me—making me feel like Jaime Lannister arriving in Winterfell. I have to guess they’re offering me the window seat so they can sit side by side.

It’s a minor victory to be saved from the center seat. Surveys have shown the younger you are the more you prefer the window seat on a plane. (Look, Ma, clouds!) With age comes wisdom, though, along with creakier body parts that prefer the relative freedom of the aisle seat.

Given opportunity and foresight—and because my bladder is the original size of the Grinch’s heart—I’ll always take the aisle. And to avoid future skyborne interpersonal and/or physiological nightmares, I’ve written myself a list of “Top 10 Ways to Avoid or Survive the Airplane Center Seat.”

Note: You’re free to use the list, too.

set-an-alarm
Set an alarm!

1. Check in ahead of time.

Some airlines allow you to pick a seat when you book. Others, like Southwest, which I use often, have an open-seating policy and require check in 24 hours ahead of time. Nike wasn’t kidding: Just do it! Set an alarm on your phone to go off 24 hours and 10 minutes before your departure and return flights.

2. Make the queue.

If you check in on Southwest at the appropriate time and win a golden (“A”) or silver (“B”) ticket, you’re nearly guaranteed an aisle or window seat—if you get in line in time. Southwest allows A1-60 to board first. Then B1-60, and C1-60. Oversleep, or linger at the airport bar over a second glass of IPA? Dummy. If you’re late to the gate for boarding, no matter what ticket you have you’re risking the center-seat Malachi Crunch.

3. Early birds gets the aisle.

Though it pains me to suggest add-on fees, Southwest does have an EarlyBird Check-In. For $15-$25 each way, the airline will automatically check you in 36 hours before a flight. There’s also a Business Select Fare ($30-$40) that guarantees an A1-15 boarding pass.

Windown-seat-airplane
Window seats: Fun when you’re five.

4. I kid, I kid.

Traveling with a child six years old or younger? The lone benefit is that you qualify for Southwest Family Boarding—it happens after the A’s and before the B’s.

5. Miracles at the gate.

The New York Mets won the 1969 World Series. Somebody eventually wins the Powerball lottery. And, if you approach your airport gate staffer and politely inquire if there are any aisle seats available, every once and a blue moon one will have opened up.

6. Like Malcolm, you’re stuck in the middle.

OK, you’re doomed. No amount of negotiation can alter your sentence to the center. Before you board the plane and assume the position in your cell, do this one important thing: Use the restroom. Remember, for the next several hours, if you need to answer nature’s call, you’ve got to ask somebody’s permission and wait while they resentfully move out of the way.

7. Elbows up.

It’s not a given, but common decency calls for allowing the center-seat sitter to use utilize both available arm rests. Nonetheless, common decency is as spare up there in the air as it is in Washington, D.C. Stake out your territory.

At-Your-Gate-sandwich
Happy with an At Your Gate-delivered panini.

8. Pack emergency food.

Okay, this is sound advice even if you’ve secured a cushy aisle seat. I always add a bottle of water and a turkey sandwich (or some inoffensive-smelling foodstuff) in my carry-on bag. What if you get delayed on the tarmac for hours? What if they run out of pretzels? Close-at-hand food is peace of mind.

Tip: A service called At Your Gate delivers warm food to you right at your gate inside a growing number of U.S. airports, including San Diego, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Portland and the three that service New York City (JFK, LaGuardia and Newark).  

9. Weapons of mass entertainment.

In these cramped quarters you have to distract yourself. I always bring a magazine (those old-timey, colored-paper things with words printed on the pages). The mag is for takeoff and landing time. In between—screens, baby, screens. Sometimes flights offer free wi-fi. If not, have a couple movies downloaded on your phone or laptop.

Films to avoid: “The 33” (about those Chilean miners trapped underground for two months; and the highly claustrophobic “Buried,” starring Ryan Reynolds, in which he spends a majority of the flick entombed in a wooden coffin.

We-are-the-world-up-in-the-air
Up in the air, we are the world, too.

10. Check your ego at the door.

Look it, this ordeal is going to last as long as it lasts. Remember when Michael Jackson, Cyndi Lauper, Bruce Springsteen and every famous recording artist of the 1980s stood on risers for a day to record the charity pop single “We Are The World?” There was a sign on a wall inside the studio that day. It read: Check Your Egos At The Door.”

You’re probably not sitting in the center seat of an airplane off on a mission to raise millions of dollars to fight hunger in Africa. If you are, bless you. If not, pack a neck pillow. Bring noise-cancelling headphones. Meditate. Take a physician-approved sleep aid. Order a Bombay Sapphire and tonic.

Make peace with your predicament. Be kind and humble. Suffer fools as gladly as possible. However, learning how to stare vacantly into the air like “Three-Eyed Raven” Bran Stark is not a bad fallback course of action, either.  J&J