‘Our loyalty isn’t worth anything’: I paid $70 for a seat with more legroom, but two women grabbed similar empty seats for free. Is that fair?

“God forbid one should be charitable and offer one of the “pay-more” seats to someone who might really need it.” (Photo subject is a model.)

“God forbid one should be charitable and offer one of the “pay-more” seats to someone who might really need it.” (Photo subject is a model.) – Getty Images/iStockphoto

Dear Moneyist,

On a recent flight on American Airlines AAL to California, I used my frequent-flyer miles to buy an upgrade to a seat in a row with significantly more legroom. It was around 6,900 miles — or approximately $70 if you paid in cash.

The flight was about one-third empty and there was no one sitting across from me in the “pay-more-for-more-legroom” row, and there was no one in the row in front of that (which I think was the exit row, which costs even more for an upgrade).

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After the flight attendant announced that everyone was on board and that the doors were closed, two women — a mother and daughter as far as I can tell — from standard seats SPRINTED for the two “pay-more” seats and took a seat in each (not even seats together in the same row). The flight attendants didn’t say anything to them.

As soon as the flight reached cruising altitude, the daughter (who was in her 20s, I estimated) lay down across all three seats and slept there for the entire flight. Again, the flight attendants didn’t say anything.

I felt slighted because I had paid for my seat (and I am a very loyal American Airlines customer). I wrote to the airline to explain what had happened and asked for a refund of my miles. They emailed back, but they didn’t refund my miles. It was as if they hadn’t read my email,

With a little time having passed, I realized that — besides being bent out of shape — an interesting and contradictory message is sent by allowing this practice: First, don’t buy an upgrade, even with miles, if the flight isn’t appearing full.

Next, as soon as the flight is almost fully boarded, be sure that you have scoped out the empty seats, and have a strategy for quickly moving to the empty “pay-more” seats as the “doors closed” announcement is made, if not sooner! If someone boards late and has one of those seats, you just have to return to your standard seat.

Also, if the whole “pay-more” row is full, go crazy and take it all, by lying down as soon as the airplane is at cruising altitude. (God forbid one should be charitable and offer one of the “pay-more” seats to someone who might really need it.)

Customers who are loyal and follow the rules, and use their AA miles to properly upgrade, don’t really matter — our loyalty isn’t worth anything. Plus, flight attendants apparently really don’t care if someone moves to a “pay-more” seat.

But here’s an interesting question: How would they have reacted if one of those women moved into a business-class or first-class seat? I’m sure that AA doesn’t want it to go viral that everyone should behave the way these two women did. Finally, do customer complaints and requests carry any weight at all these days? Does anyone really read them?

A side note: The same thing happened to me on a JetBlue JBLU flight to California a couple of years ago. Same scenario, except the non-paying sprinter didn’t lie down, because two of the seats were already taken. When I contacted JetBlue, they did refund my cash payment for the upgrade!

OK, so I know I am obsessed about this. That’s true! And, right or not, I took a picture of the young woman as she was fast asleep across the three rows.

A Traveling Man

Related: ‘Her world is rocked’: A friend hit the jackpot, but her old friends are abandoning her one by one. Is there a cure for jealousy?

Yes, you paid for a “more-legroom” seat, but you also paid for the guarantee of a seat with more legroom. Yes, you paid for a “more-legroom” seat, but you also paid for the guarantee of a seat with more legroom.

Yes, you paid for a “more-legroom” seat, but you also paid for the guarantee of a seat with more legroom. – MarketWatch illustration

Dear Traveling,

Buckle up, tighten your seatbelt — and brace for some turbulence.

Yes, it is fair game to snag some extra wiggle room at 30,000 feet. You paid the equivalent of $70 for an upgrade to a more comfortable seat, and two people saw an opportunity and went for it. They got to sit in one of your seats with ample leg room for free. The flight attendants either didn’t care or turned a blind eye, or thought that those empty seats may as well be used by somebody, but they were not usurping those seats from someone who had paid $70.

You paid for a “more-legroom” seat, that’s true, but you also paid for the guarantee of a seat with more legroom. Airlines have ad-hoc policies when it comes to who sits where. They have the flexibility to move someone to an exit-row seat because they are strong enough or willing enough to open the emergency door if need be. They get to stretch out their legs as a reward. If you were given an upgrade to first class and a fellow passenger cried foul, would you sheepishly schlep back to economy?

The line between ethics and etiquette is sometimes a fine line. Did they hurt anyone by taking these seats? No. Sure, the airline did not get its $70, but these two passengers saw an opportunity and grabbed it, literally and figuratively. They probably had fun doing it, and it made their flight more rewarding. Plus, they may not have wished to pay extra like you did. (I put your comments to both American Airlines and JetBlue, neither of which responded.)

The correct way of approaching this would be to ask: “May I take this row after the doors close?” In the interest of goodwill, the attendants may say yes. If the move is to a row in premium economy, the airline may choose to decline because it could damage the goodwill of the customer who paid for the extra legroom (you). Flight attendants are there for your safety, and they may not take notice of every seat jumper, but I have seen them decline and approve such requests.

There are similar situations of bending the rules or taking advantage of them where I have come down on your side of the moral argument. Take this couple — to paraphrase the comedian Henny Youngman, please somebody take them! — who made $1,000 opening and closing credit cards. They took advantage of the rewards system and, arguably, helped pushed up the costs and transfer fees for everyone else. It’s tantamount to buying clothes and returning them after one wear.

And now a confession: A couple of years ago, a standby passenger got on my transatlantic flight and eyed the aisle seat in my three-seat row. There were other empty seats, so I said, “Don’t even think about it!” He replied, “What?” I said, “I have an entire row to lie out on and now you’re going to spoil it.” I asked him if he was an undercover agent (he said no, obviously), but he took the seat. “I like you!” he said, and sat down. (Maybe he was an undercover agent, and he wanted to keep an eye on me.)

One final note: Taking their photo was probably a step too far. I understand that you were upset that this mother-and-daughter duo had behaved in what you believe was a gauche or “grabby” manner, but there’s too much citizen journalism where people publicly shame private citizens with viral photos and videos. A TikTokker recently outed a passenger with a wedding ring talking to a woman on a flight who was allegedly not his wife. Thankfully, you did not go that far.

Even if you sit in premium economy, it’s better to be a first-class guy.

More columns from Quentin Fottrell:

‘My mother is being catfished’: She fell ‘madly in love’ with a man over Facebook. How do I convince her that it’s a scam?

‘We live on a fixed income’: My husband and I are retired. We’re invited to our niece’s destination wedding. Are we obliged to buy a gift?

‘I don’t live extravagantly’: I have $68K in credit-card debt and $50K in a 401(k). How can I dig myself out of this trap on a $55K salary?

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