Travel Advice: A Middle-Seat Dilemma

Q. I am a thoroughly un-ideal flyer. I have moderately severe flight anxiety, I tend to fly by myself, so I don’t have a friend or loved one to act as a buffer, I can’t sleep on airplanes, and due to a combination of sensitive skin and a tendency towards headaches, on average I drink at least a liter of water every four hours while airborne. Due to this thrilling mélange of issues, I find it essential to be in an aisle seat when flying, both because of a reduced sense of claustrophobia and easy access to the restrooms. However, despite my consistent efforts towards requesting an aisle seat at booking, or politely asking to switch when boarding, there are times when I find myself in the middle seat. On flights lasting only a couple hours, it’s fine; I’ll suck it up and deal. But on longer flights, particularly trans-oceanic, when nearly everyone surrounding me in the cabin is asleep, a passenger etiquette question consistently arises that I don’t know the answer to: if you’re in a middle seat (or by the window), and the person(s) in the aisles seat(s) blocking your route to the bathroom is a sleeping stranger, when and how often is it okay to wake them to ask if you can get up?

It’s a thorny issue: for one, it’s not pleasant if you’re one of the few individuals still awake on an airplane, suffering through the terrible movie that you watched three times on your outbound flight ten days ago, but the unpleasantness is compounded if you also really, really have to pee. But my mother would be horrified at the suggestion that I might wake-up a sleeping stranger at what, due to time-zone confusing-ness could be 8pm or 3am. And if those passengers are lucky enough to have managed to fall asleep, how could I rob them of their interludes of sweet airborne oblivion? I like to think that most denizens of the coveted aisle seats would be charitable to their middle-seat neighbors, but aside from trying to broach the subject in advance, is there a polite and reasonable way to request to be released from your centralized, claustrophobic cage? 

A. Airplane seats are packed so tightly these days that our personal dignity is sacrificed every time we board. The sudden intimacy with the strangers in our row requires a higher level of consideration as we jockey for armrest space, recline only partway (if at all), and sneeze carefully into our shoulders. It also requires stoic patience for those passengers who do none of those things.

Most fliers, especially those on long, international flights, will be understanding of your need to get up and pass your butt or your crotch (a whole other dilemma) past their face every hour or so. If they become visibly annoyed, a simple apology with a bit of disclosure may due the trick: “I’m so sorry. I have some health issues that make flying a challenge.”

However, you do have a few options to avoid this awkwardness altogether. Get to the gate well in advance—at least an hour—of your departure to increase your odds that the gate attendant will still have aisle seats available.

While the gate attendant may not be able to honor your request for an aisle seat, your seatmate might. Warn them right away that you get up a lot during long flights. At the very least, they know to brace themselves for frequent interruptions. At the very best, they may decide a middle seat is less annoying and offer to trade.

Better yet, when you book the fight online, look carefully at the options. Many airlines allow you to choose your seat assignment when you book. If not, call the airline after you book and see if they can assign you an aisle seat at that point.

If you aren’t able to secure an aisle seat at the time of booking, then be sure to check in online as soon as you’re allowed. Most of the time, that’s exactly 24 hours before your departure. You are often given the option to change your seat assignment at that time.

If all this fails and you find yourself pinned in the middle or window seat, don’t feel bad when nature calls. Things could be a lot worse for your sleeping seatmate—I’m sure they’d choose you over a screaming baby or someone with nasty BO.