Can You Sit In Business Class When It’s Empty?

On a recent United Airlines flight from Atlanta to Houston, I was seated in the Premium Economy section – the first 3-4 rows behind business class – while the plane was, approximately, 75% full.

A few moments after the boarding door was closed (but before pushback), a passenger quickly transitioned from Economy to the last row in Premium Economy class.

I had already taken notice that I was the only passenger in my section and saw the move in my peripheral view. I was unsure where the passenger moved from, but I assumed he was a “self-upgrader” as he had moved from AT LEAST 3-4 rows behind me and was not being escorted by a flight attendant.

After the move, I overheard the passenger giggle and say “I should always book basic economy” to a fellow passenger a few rows behind and signal them to make the move also.


If you book a basic economy ticket for a flight, you’re left with whatever crappy seat the airline wants to give you, whether it’s at the back of the plane or just a middle seat in a row that won’t recline. When you see row after row of empty business-class seats or premium economy seats as you board, you might think to yourself: Why not trade up? You silently grab your belongings and make your way to those empty rows, hoping a flight attendant will look past it.

Well, there are a few reasons why airlines don’t want passengers to “sneak” into a business class or premium economy row, no matter how stealthy they are.

For one, most basic economy passengers are ineligible for any kind of upgrade. It’s a rule that’s built into your fare class and ticket. But for any passenger, generally, airlines opt to keep these rows empty – even if it makes virtually zero difference to their bottom line.

Here’s the deal: In the eyes of airlines, it’s stealing. By their logic, you are simply taking a seat you didn’t purchase, and it would be unfair for one passenger to grab an upgraded seat over another.


In September 2019, United Airlines made headlines over an exchange with a traveler who simply wanted to nab a better seat in an empty Economy Plus section on their flight.

The passenger said:

United responded:

The passenger then responded:

United then responds:


Before the passenger could even buckle his seatbelt, the flight crew approached the passenger and asked him to return to his seat. The passenger quickly responded by saying “but this whole section and all these seats are empty, why can’t I sit here?”

Interestingly, the flight attendant said all that she needed to say with a quick raise of the eyebrows and non-response. Yikes!


Flight attendants are fully aware of who should be seated in each respective seat in a premium section. In fact, they receive a printout of the names for everyone in those seats. And in a story from the Los Angeles Times, author and flight attendant Elliott Hester noted that attendants are explicitly required to challenge any premium-class interlopers.

Personally, I have moved to a row that had less passengers but was within a row or two of my original seat. I’ve even moved from a seat near the wing to the last row of the plane (is that an upgrade or downgrade?) but I’ve never attempted to self-upgrade to another section.

While the rules may not be explicit in an airline’s contract of carriage, you’ll hear frequent stories of passengers who’ve attempted to “self-upgrade” have been asked to pay the cost of the ticket or even been threatened with arrest. I can imagine this could probably be an awkward mid-flight confrontation.

So I am curious…what do you think about self-upgrades? Have you ever self-upgraded to another section? Have you ever asked a flight attendant to change seats before making the change?


  1. I have moved once to be with my companion in first class after boarding was closed. I then didn’t realize it was wrong but they never asked because they assumed I was just sitting with my husband. I typically fly economy and always ask the FA “can I move my seat to a seat nearby if the row is empty” (Within same class). I always get a yes for the most part. Now I know….

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I have asked to move when a flight had many available seats and I was stuck in a middle seat. I was granted permission to move. However, I would never ask to move to an upgraded section……….nor would I self-upgrade.
    If there are 7 rows available to upgrade, the passenger should ask permission first. If not permitted to move, accept the seat you paid for and remain silent.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Never self-upgraded because that’s not cool, like ever. I fly business and first class because I pay for it or have credit cards/mileage status that afford me upgrades. My boyfriend often flies economy, even when I’m on the SAME flight in a premium class.

    Bottom line: You want to bump up, that’s cool. Whip that credit card out and handle your business. 👀

    Liked by 1 person

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