Do You Really Hate the Middle Seat That Much?


There was an interesting survey that came out earlier this month showing that people hate the middle seat far more than I could ever imagine. While I usually like to blame the surveyor, I think this is a case Survey Says . . .of the respondents not telling the truth.

Let’s start with the responses that make sense. Eighty percent of travelers say they try to avoid the middle seat and only 1% say they prefer it. (Who the heck are those 1%?) But those numbers don’t sound too far off. It also says that 56% would rather be stuck in traffic or go on a blind date. Ok, not so bad. Then it runs into trouble.

Apparently 50% of people would take an aisle seat on the next flight over a middle seat on their current flight. And even more astounding, 20% said they would stay overnight if they could avoid a middle seat on their flight. A full 9% said they would outright refuse a middle seat. Are you freakin’ kidding me?!? I can certainly see a few random big and tall folks being willing to stay overnight, but not 20%. That’s insane.

In this case, the surveyor doesn’t really have a skin in the game. It was put out by 3M Privacy Filters. You know those things – they go over your computer screen so that someone sitting close to you can’t look over your shoulder and see what you’re doing. All they care about is that middle seats exist, because that’s when you really need them. They don’t care if you like them or not.

So I think the respondents here aren’t being truthful. This survey was administered online, and it’s really easy to say you’d wait for the next flight when you’re answering from the comfort of your home. You go find me someone with a middle seat boarding pass waiting to board a flight and then you’ll get dramatically different answers.

In fact, let’s throw a survey out here and see what you guys think. Airline employees shouldn’t answer this one. As a former nonrev pro, I know the correct answer for an airline employee is “I will take absolutely any seat you give me as long as it gets me closer to home.”

Would you walk away from your middle seat and stay overnight in an airport hotel for an aisle seat on the first flight the next morning?

View Results

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(If you can’t see the survey, go directly to the post)

By the way, possibly the most disturbing thing in this survey was that only 6% of people said the middle seat gets both armrests. I imagine this may generate the most discussion down below, but that is the correct answer. If you’re stuck in the middle, you get both armrests. It’s a small consolation, yes, but it’s the least you deserve. Just don’t go trying to raise that armrest . . . .

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27 comments on “Do You Really Hate the Middle Seat That Much?

  1. I think those questions depend on so many factors, not available as choices in the survey. How long is the flight and do I have the time to fly out in the morning? I’d stay over if I could for a longer flight – 3-5 hours maybe – but wouldn’t stay away an extra night if I was only going to be in the middle for an hour or two. Sometimes you gotta get home, sometimes you don’t.

  2. Cranky,

    I got the middle seat from IAD-LHR and back (gf wanted the window) and you know what, I lived. I coulda used some more leg room though.

  3. Checking in for a United flight(s) you get asked if you want to upgrade for a fee to the those front of the coach cabin seats with more leg room. If I have an aisle/window seat already and the only choice is a middle seat to upgrade to, then the answer is no, I would rather keep the aisle/window seat in the back then the middle seat up front.

    A lot of factors come in to play in answering survey questions, if you are a average size adult person the middle seat will not give you room. At least the aisle and window passengers can lean towards the window or aisle and not feel so cramped.

    People traveling together and want to sit next to each other could at least trade off or the smaller of the two just stay in the middle seat. But this doesn’t work when traveling with a child, Dad sits in the middle seat so the child can have the window seat. But at least Dad can lean towards the child so you in the aisle feel you have a bit more room.

    What I hate is when two people are traveling together and they book a window and aisle seat hoping this trick will leave the middle seat free. Then if there is some stranger in the middle seat they spend the whole flight leaning in front of the middle person to chat to each other. Just switch seats so the middle person doesn’t have to smell your bad breath as you rudely lean in front of them every five minutes to talk to your traveling companion.

    And you are right, any airline worker just wants to get on the flight and doesn’t care if they have to sit in the lav the whole way.

  4. Neil S has it down to the bare and real truth. What are the mitigating factors? A one-hour shuttle flight? No, I’d take the middle seat and get it over with. Five hours transcon? If it was the last flight on a holiday? Yea, I’d take the middle.
    16-hours to Hong Kong? I’d at least ask if an aisle or window was available the next day that’s for damn sure.

  5. The worst thing to happen to air travel is the 737 and its progeny. The middle seat on any airplane sucks but the middle seat on a 737 is downright cruel. The airplane is small and cramped as it is so the middle seat makes it even more claustrophobic. Getting an isle seat is miserable on a 7370

    The middle seat on a 777 or A380 is a vastly different experience than on a 737 because you don’t have the instant sense of claustrophobia so it’s easier to cope.

  6. Quoting DavidSF:
    “And you are right, any airline worker just wants to get on the flight and doesn’t care if they have to sit in the lav the whole way.”

    Uh, that only applies on JetBlue, right?

    I second the others’ emotion that for a 1 or 1.5 hour flight it’s bearable, but anything longer–forget it.

  7. At 6’3″, I bite the bullet or a thirty minute puddle hopper. I will squeeze in for an hour or two if it’s absolutely unavoidable. But I try as best as possible to avoid it. They do let you select seats in advance.

    If so unlucky and it turns out at the gate hat I got the middle, somebody will share my pain. I positively refuse to board any flight longer than two hours without either an aisle or emergency row seat. I’ve been there. It’s torture. I take the next flight, thanks.

    But mostly, United does find that aisle seat–that could not for all the agent’s wit and sweat be found–when the 747 ORD-HKG service risks extra delay to offload a set of luggage because the tall guy won’t take no for an answer…

  8. Cranky, I think everyone’s pretty much in agreement on this one, which begs the question: who fills all the middle seats on long-haul widebodies?

  9. I am 6’3″ and I have had to take the middle seat a few times going from from SFO to Taipei on EVA. I absolutely refuse to fly with them anymore, I end up going through HK or Tokyo but I’d rather add 1-2 hours to my flight and pay more than sit in the middle seat on a fully packed flight again and every single EVA flight I have ever been on is fully packed. So not only would I wait overnight I’d actually go a step further and fly a completely different airline.

  10. It seems like you’re only complaining about one part of a three part section here: “Apparently 50% of people would take an aisle seat on the next flight over a middle seat on their current flight. And even more astounding, 20% said they would stay overnight if they could avoid a middle seat on their flight. A full 9% said they would outright refuse a middle seat.”

    I would fall into that 50% category if it was a flight longer than two hours. And I would probably fall into that 9% if the flight was longer than two hours. The middle seat is just no fun, period. I don’t know about the third option of staying over night. It would really depend on a lot of factors.

  11. Hopefully the airlines won’t take the results of such surveys to find a way to charge extra for aisle seats. (Come to think of it, I’d be surprised if Ryanair isn’t actually doing this already…)

    I had read that NW actually had given its top tier elites bonus frequent flyer miles for being stuck in a middle seat in coach. Don’t know if this is true anymore but it is a nice gesture.

  12. I bring a pair of pliers along to rip my fingernails out if I have to sit in the middle seat, thus I forget the torture of the middle seat, but the screams are distracting to my seat neighbors.

    I generally want to get to my destination so I will endure. If I have been so foolish as to not prearrange a quality seat, then I figure I am entitled to what I get. What helps me through that is that I think about the Pilgrims on the Mayflower or the pioneers crossing the country in their Conestogas. I realize that no matter what, I am going farther and faster and accomplishing more than they ever could and generally going to be far more comfortable than they could ever dream of being.

    While some of the flights I have endured have been less pleasant than burning cow pies for warmth or snacking on your travel mates leg (i.e Donner party), they had to do it day after day – I was able to get to an adult beverage and leave the experience in less than 24 hours.

  13. Maybe all the original survey reveals is the truth that there are even more “wide” people in the USA than we think. As one of them, I would never sit in an aisle seat because of the discomfort for me and for the customers who would be on either side of me.

    When I’m shopping for flights, I check the seat map and if there are only middle seats, I’ll change my plans to take another flight.

  14. ATL – NY or vice versa: I will take the middle seat if I have to. Aisle is always my preferred seat (less claustrophobic).

    We have not yet discussed the Business Class middle seat which exists on certain airlines (Korean’s 747 for instance). I much prefer the 2-2-2 config versus the 2-3-2.

    And with regards to the privacy screen, they are of course especially helpful on middle seats. But in any seat config you have a fellow passenger sitting right next to you so it pays to have privacy. That is, if you have enough room between your belly and the person in front of you to open a laptop to begin with…

    I once traveled in business *(Delta 2-2-2) to Moscow only to find that a person from one of our biggest competitors was sitting right next to me. I could read all he was reading… but it was an overnight flight so all I had to concern myself with was his gentle, competitive snore.

    The privacy screens really work, but are massively overpriced ($30+++ if I remember correctly) for a sheet of plastic.

  15. For the moment I thought this would be the hate-fest for “the middle seat” travel column in WSJ (mostly quite bad). Scott McCartney looks like someone who would be unhappy with such a seat assignment…

  16. Well, it looks like my survey results ended up being fairly similar to 3M’s. Who would’ve guessed? At last check, of 380 voters, 16% said they’d stay overnight. I want to see if that really happens in practice. I’m still skeptical.

    Potcake – Apparently just short, skinny people and kids take the middle on the long hauls. I imagine for a lot of people, it’s just not that important. I always try to grab the window and that means my wife sits in the middle. I used to offer her the middle, but then I’d get angry because she usually passes out before we’re off the ground. Now she sits in the middle and still passes out, so she doesn’t really care . . . as long as my shoulder is available for her head.

    John E – Well said.

    No Middle Seats – Now that I agree with. If I see a barren seat map and I can find another flight that suits my needs with open windows, then I’ll do that as well. But I won’t stay overnight or take a bump for a later flight once my travel plans are set.

    malbarda – Ah yes, the dreaded middle in business class. That’s something that nobody should have to endure unless they’re on a freebie or an upgrade. But now airlines have started 2-4-2 (BA, for example) with the thinner but longer flat beds.

  17. I think you are underestimating how awful middle seats are and people who develop anxiety over being trapped between 2 people. No where to even lean and sleep.

    One time i was forced into the middle from las vegas to EWR and i contemplated staying over to avoid it. I thought to myself that is ridiculous and it won’t be that bad, so I took the flight.

    Well, never again!! there is no way i will endure that awful experience of the middle seat between 2 other large men. Life is too short to deal with that awful feeling.

  18. actually to clarify, it would be ok if my spouse or significant other was in the window or aisle and i could lean on them for a 4+ hour flight. Otherwise, I have too many Marriott and SPG points to put myself through that crap.

  19. The two main reasons I check in online about 24 hours before my flight is to a) make sure I have an aisle seat and b) be as close to the front. I made the mistake of switching to a front row middle seat to be at the front rather than towards the back and forgot that the tray tables were in the armrests. As a “curvier” gentleman, this was an uncomfortable situation (made worse by having a destination of Winnipeg…)

  20. Wont do a middle on SFO-SYD for sure or anything over 6+ hours.

    (I think you missed a GOLDEN opportunity to use the Mama’s Family on Family Feud Screenshot for your post!)

  21. I don’t think 20% sounds as ridiculous as you think. Think business travelers. Most aren’t flying on their own dime, and might not mind another night watching pay-per-view away from the screaming kids. The middle seat is just the excuse

  22. I always try for window but, as a small female, will put up with middle if I absolutely have to (I wouldn’t change flights or anything just for that). That said, I hate EVERY minute of it. I can’t concentrate on reading or relaxing or anything because I am alternatingly either
    a) playing head-jockey with the window-sitter in order to catch a glimpse out the window
    b) mentally raving at both seat-mates for elbows on my armrests (“everyone knows I get both, you jerks!”) or for letting their legs drift all over into my footspace (the Man With The Widespread Legs is my mortal enemy)
    c) attempting to control my claustrophobia, because the window-sitter has — god forbid — closed the window shade on take-off(!)

    I regress to my child-hood backseat-with-siblings days, that’s for sure. It’s alarming.

    Side note: This is the exact reason I am ready to stop flying United : their aggravating E+ system has consistently cost me a chance to choose my own seat, and saddled me with a middle seat at the gate instead. (Because they hold all those E+ seats back until every customer has checked in.) ARGH!

  23. I really don’t care if I have a middle seat. I read my book and sleep. If I happen to have an aisle or window and some big guy wants it, I turn it over. No big deal.

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