Airplane Seat ‘Theft’ Is Causing Anxiety Around The Globe – But Is COVID-19 To Blame?

"The anxiety of someone taking my plane seat makes me pretty uncomfortable."

Passengers get ready to disembark a crowded Ryanair flight.

Image: Getty

We all know the story: you’ve arrived at the airport hours before your flight departs, traipsed through security, twiddled your thumbs until your gate opens, walked half a mile to get there, only to finally board… And find that someone else has stolen your allocated seat, or wants to swap with you. The phenomenon is becoming increasingly common and increasingly taking a toll on the mental health of travellers. How did we get here, and how can you tackle the epidemic of seat thieves?

One in five Aussie blokes will experience an anxiety condition in their lifetime and one in seven will experience one this year. You’ll be unsurprised to hear that these numbers are forecast to increase, alongside a wider mental health epidemic that shows no signs of slowing.

One unlikely source of such anxiety that also appears to be on the ascent is the “theft” of pre-booked aeroplane seats. Passengers that go to the trouble to select their preferred seat well in advance of their flight – and often spend the extra money – are increasingly arriving on board only to find that another passenger is gunning for their allotted seat.

Passengers are finding that either they arrive, get comfortable, and then find themselves being pestered by a fellow passenger – sometimes with the backup in the form of aeroplane staff – to change sats or, perhaps even worse, arrive to find their seat already taken by another passenger that believes they have a better reason for using it. Since COVID, it seems to have become a particularly big problem, if chatter online is anything to believe.

One flyer took to Reddit to explain their run of bad luck:

“The anxiety of someone taking my plane seat makes me pretty uncomfortable as I always just give in and accept if they have a good attitude. Flew three times [recently and it] happened every time, some couple wanting to sit together or a kid’s first flight, always the window seat… My friends think I’m being stupid but if there’s a mum with her kid I just can’t tell her to move.”

Nothing’s worse than forking out extra for a window seat only for another passenger to steal your spot. Image: Travel Off Path

Another flyer went a step further, writing to The New York Times about their recent experience, and asking whether they were wrong to hold their ground…

“I have long legs, and [pre-booked aisle or bulkhead] seats tend to provide more legroom… The last two times I’ve flown, a steward asked me to change seats to accommodate a parent flying alone with small children. My moving would allow them to sit together… I politely refused. Several passengers made nasty comments. Was I wrong to hold my ground?”

Lissa, asking the NYT

These are only two examples chosen from swathes that exist online. Fliers have even taken to TikTok, forming a community of bereft sans-seat victims. It’s clear that this phenomenon is on the rise and it’s clear that it’s causing travellers a great deal of distress.

But why is it happening so frequently? And how should you approach the situation should you find your own seat under attack?

One medical professional, Aimee Daramus, PsyD, thinks that the COVID-19 pandemic could be to blame.

During COVID lockdowns “a lot of us were separated from our social support, either physically, emotionally… Anytime people have reason to be fearful for a long time, that’s going to kind of get into their heads, and they’ll be maybe a little more cautious, a little more defensive.”

On top of this social fear, there’s also a backlog of energy and enthusiasm for travelling. In particular, people want to make sure that their long-overdue travel experiences live up to their expectations, perfect in every way, including their airborne seating arrangements…

“A lot of people are in a period of relative freedom where they’re maybe not thinking things through as carefully as they had to during the pandemic,” adds Dr. Daramus. “There’s some anxiety, but there’s also eagerness to be out there doing things—maybe sometimes a little bit of restlessness. We’ve been let out to play after being shut inside for a long time, and now we really want to play.”

Increased social fear mixed with a strong desire to make sure your waylaid travel plans are *just right* is a heady cocktail of emotions that appears to be causing run-ins in fuselages around the world. So what’s the best way to deal with these situations? Is it better to stand your ground or let bygones be bygones?

Counsellor and EMDR therapist Theresa Libios reckons some introspection is in order. Knowing that the seat is rightly yours – that you deserve to sit there – is one thing, but speaking up can be a whole other challenge…

“It’s a matter of looking within,” says Libios, and asking yourself, “‘hey, where does that guilt come from when I say no? Why don’t I think I deserve to sit here? What is it in me saying that I don’t deserve this space, that I don’t deserve this seat?’ Because you do have every right to say no.”

If they won’t give you your seat back, talk to a flight attendant instead of getting heated. Image: Jetstar

Online commenters are a little more straightforward, with Elizabeth Henderson saying this on Quora:

“By far the best thing is simply to say, ‘I’m sorry, but I prefer to stay here’… It is not your problem. If [they] persevere… Let the flight attendant sort it out.”

Elizabeth Henderson, Quora

So, when it comes to someone who’s just trying to nab your sublime window view or facing off with couples that simply can’t bear to be apart for a few hours: stand your ground, you’ve every right to the seat you booked.

The only exception? Ankle biters. Flying with children is bloody hard; doing it whilst sitting in separate rows – especially if you’re flying for less than ideal reasons in the first place (think the death of a relative, for example) – is nigh on impossible. Have mercy on flying parents; all other adults are fair game.

And remember, if anyone tries to shame you for standing your ground, ask if they’re willing to volunteer, see who else in the cabin is up for the job – nothing puts people on the spot like a little hypocrisy. Failing that, you can always ask if an upgrade is available… Nothing takes the sting out of being asked to move like a glass of free champagne and metal cutlery.