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Are you obliged to switch seats on a plane? Inside the travel debate

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Posted at 7:44 PM, Nov 19, 2023
and last updated 2023-11-19 19:44:01-05

As the holiday season begins to take off, so has another travel debate: whether or not it's acceptable to ask other passengers on a plane to switch their seat with yours.

One video on TikTok posted by Tammy Nelson, which has garnered over five million views, shows her sharing her own experience when a woman wanted to swap her middle seat for Nelson’s window seat in order to sit next to her children.

She explained in clip's caption that she didn't agree to switch seats because she “desperately needed some sleep” after “having had only 90 minutes of sleep the night before and knowing I had to give a presentation to 500 people.”

Nelson also shared that the woman's kids “looked like they were about 11 and 15 years old. And the mom was in arm’s reach of both of them from the middle seat in the row behind us.”

During an interview with “Good Morning America” that aired Friday, Nelson shed more light on her side of the story.

“I said, ‘I'm sorry.’ I said, ‘I really need a window.’ So, you know, I don't want to switch. And she was not happy,” Nelson shared of the encounter.

Another frequent flier, Tyler Reagan of Los Angeles, also spoke to “GMA,” offering an extended take on the situation. Although he’s generally against switching seats, Reagan said his decision might change depending on the circumstances.

“There are times that you may switch seats and that's fine,” he said. “I just don't like the notion that you are labeled a bit of a jerk if you choose not to.”

Rosalinda Randall, an etiquette expert, told "GMA" no one is obligated to switch seats on a plane if asked to do so. However, she notes there’s nothing wrong with asking “anybody anything.”

“Also, be ready when someone replies to you with the answer that you weren't expecting,” Randall said. “So you can always ask. What I tell people is, if you're going to ask, have a good reason."

For mother-of-two Izzy Anaya of New York, sometimes things may not go as planned, especially when traveling with a family. She said agreeing to switch seats when asked can be a chance for you to do a good deed.

“If you have a couple that's on their honeymoon or if you have a family with kids and you are traveling alone, it is your opportunity to do something good,” she told “GMA."

When traveling, keep in mind that with some airlines charging different prices for different seats, choosing to buy the least expensive ticket means you’re risking the chance of being assigned a seat that’s separate from the group you're traveling with. Likewise, when asking to switch seats with another passenger, keep in mind their potential situation.

“Just be aware that the person may have chosen that flight for that seat for a very specific reason,” Sara Nelson, the international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, told "GMA." “They may have paid for it. They may have a very specific reason for sitting there. So don't be surprised if the answer is no.”