I’m going to sell you the middle seat on the plane and it has nothing to do with meeting new people. It also has everything to do with snagging the ultimate jackpot: a whole row to yourself.
It’s the bitch seat that no one seems to want, car, plane or tuk tuk. (Shotgun!) Unless you love meeting new people, I don’t think most people will bother climbing over others for it. That is, unless they are trying to go to the restroom.
In fact, it’s a bit amazing how much people dislike the middle seat, but you can play this to your advantage. A study conducted by 3M shows that most people would rather endure getting their teeth pulled or getting set up on an awkward blind date then sitting there. Contemplate this for a second:
Fifty percent of people said they would be likely to take an aisle seat being offered on the next available flight, while one in five Americans (20 percent) say they would actually stay overnight at an airport hotel for an aisle seat on the first flight the next morning!
...Nine percent of Americans report that they would refuse to sit in the middle seat on a full flight if it was more than 1-2 hours.
That’s great, though. Two economic professors at Northwestern University postulate their own strategy at Cheap Talk using this specific psychology on how to avoid people by picking the middle seat. Though they go into more specific scenarios on theblog, in a nutshell:
When you are selecting seats on a flight and you have an open row should you take the middle seat or the aisle? Even if you prefer the aisle seat you are tempted to take the middle seat as a strategic move. People who check in after you will try to find a seat with nobody next to them and if you take the middle seat they will choose a different row. The risk however is that if the flight is full you are still going to have someone sitting next to you and you will be stuck in the middle seat.
That last bit is the most important thing to remember. In fact, it’s almost guaranteed that this would not work on most flights because of how drastically airlines in general have reduced their route frequency. That doesn’t mean it will never work, but I wouldn’t attempt this except on a plane that appears to be relatively empty a few days out from departure. If you go to to read the original piece, though, its clear that its a high-risk, high-rewards game (relatively speaking), and that picking the window or aisle seat is the safe, low-risk choice.
While I’ve never personally tested this theory out (though I did come close once), I am convinced that it’d work in some situations. In my case, the agent balked when I asked for the middle seat so I ended up wimping out at the last minute. Ironically, I ended up sitting a completely full row by picking the aisle seat on a rather half-empty flight. So, in theory, it could also work the other way.
Of course, if you don’t hate the middle seat, there’s nothing to risk by trying it out.
UPDATE: Just flew Seoul to Los Angeles, and saw a woman next to my row sitting in a middle seat at boarding. She also had the whole row to herself. Food for thought.