As airlines begin selling middle seats again, it’s time to remember nobody owns the armrests

If you’re stuck in the middle seat, you might be wondering who owns the armrests on a plane.

Here’s a hint: It’s not you.

Oh, I know the conventional wisdom says that if you’re in a middle seat, you own the armrests. But as economy class seats shrink, and as the pandemic lingers, it’s increasingly clear that the conventional wisdom is totally wrong. 

The economy class cabin is a shared space — and getting access to a coveted parking spot for your elbows often means thoughtful negotiation, having some compassion, and compromise.

“The middle seat armrests belong to no one,” says airline analyst Timothy O’Neil-Dunne. “It’s common space and you better treat it that way.”

Why the armrests are a shared space

A few airlines have declared a truce in the armrest wars for at least the next few months. Delta Air Lines is blocking middle seats until Jan. 6. Southwest Airlines has taken similar steps to allow social distancing. The budget airline announced Wednesday that it will keep them empty until Nov. 30. As of Sept. 17, JetBlue and Alaska had not said whether they will extend their moratorium on selling middle seats when their policies expire, on Oct. 15 and 31, respectively.

For other airlines, it’s back to 2019. 

Taking control of the middle space armrests can lead to unpleasant, even dangerous, confrontations between passengers. So let’s go over the reasons why you shouldn’t assume that you own the armrests on your middle seat.

Delta will block middle seats into January: But the airline plans to fill more of its seats

Happy Thanksgiving!  Southwest Airlines will leave middle seats open through November

When people think something on a plane is theirs, you get a confrontation like the one Scott Curkin recently witnessed on a recent flight from Las Vegas to Phoenix. A small-framed passenger sat between him and his CEO. After takeoff, the man claimed both armrests on the middle seat. 

“Then he went on a rant about how, as the occupant of the middle seat, he deserved to have both armrests,” remembers Curkin, the vice president for a marketing company in Raleigh, NC. 

When his CEO failed to yield the armrest, the man in the middle asked him to “step outside” to settle their differences. The plane hadn’t yet reached its cruising altitude.

“He actually challenged my CEO to a midair fight,” Curkin says.

Fighting about who owns the armrests on a plane is selfish

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