Negotiating the open middle seat

If you’ve flown in the past, it might seem impossible. But if you’re flying in the present (age of the virus), it’s actually becoming probable: an open middle seat. Indeed, I’m looking at one as I type this.

Find yourself and your row-mate with an open middle seat, and you find yourself with a negotiation. Since effectively hammering out the division of this and many other resources can make life negotiable, consider the following alternatives to winging it:

  1. Define your primary interest: An open middle seat is not just one but a bundle of resources, among them its tray table, under-seat storage space, floor space, seat space, seat-back pocket space, and entertainment system (if it happens to have one). Before this (and any other) negotiation, the first and most important step is defining which resources are most valuable to you. Doing so prepares you to…
  2. Make the first offer: Say it’s the under-seat storage space you covet, so as to free up your own under-seat space for your feet (or legs, or, on “Reunited Airlines,” your elbows). If so, say so! More specifically, ask your row-mate, “Do you mind if I put my bag under here?” How many times I’ve asked! And how many times I’ve received! As many negotiation researchers have noted, first offers powerfully anchor the conversation.
  3. Don’t ask for everything: Even as you request whatever you really want, however, be prepared to offer whatever you don’t. If you demand and receive the under-seat space, for example, it’s only fair to offer the seat surface itself for their bulky coat. And offering it explicitly is actually a win-win, as the unprompted concession should facilitate far friendlier skies during subsequent negotiations (e.g., over where to put the drinks and snacks).
  4. Explore a seat switch: Thanks to the nickel-and-diming instincts of the U.S. airline industry, the middle seat doesn’t always start off free. You start out sitting in it, your row-mate next to you in the aisle (for example). What to do if the window fortuitously remains free when the door closes? If you like the window, you could obviously move there, and your row-mate would probably appreciate it. But what if you like the aisle? The absence of a third passenger offers an unmistakable opportunity to reimagine the possibilities: “Looks like we have an empty seat here. Would you like the window, or do you prefer the aisle?” The worst they can say is the latter, even while appreciating your generosity.
  5. Adjust as contingencies arise: Any flight introduces innumerable contingencies. Your row-mate becomes incapable of using their laptop thanks to someone else’s severe recline. You find yourself with a towering collection of trash in the aftermath of the snacks. Or, personal story from my last flight, your headphone jack literally snaps off in your own headphone hole, and you can either use the middle seat’s hole (while sitting at the window) or be supremely bored. Perceptive negotiators, in-flight or on-ground, adjust to changing circumstances rather than slavishly sticking to outdated agreements. For example, in the case of the headphones, I simply inquired: “You mind if I plug my new Reunited Airlines headphones in over here?” It’s not rocket science, but many people don’t for fear of disrupting the status quo.

The point is incredibly simple: Open middle seats are invaluable resources that we would do well to treat as such—by negotiating. Do that, and you might actually experience some friendly skies.

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