It’s probably safe to say no one actually seeks out the middle seat on a flight, yet you’re bound to get stuck there at one point or another. And what if you’re on a 12-hour overnight flight to Australia? It’s the stuff of nightmares, but if you find yourself stuck in the middle on a long flight, there are ways to make it more bearable.
1. Resist it
Yes, resistance is probably futile but there are ways to avoid the middle seat altogether. Depending on how much you hate the middle seat, it may be worth paying the surcharge to select your seat ahead of time (or to pay for a seat in first class).
Beyond that, the easiest way to get something is to ask for it. So if you notice you’ve been assigned a middle seat, it’s worth checking to see if you can change it. On a full flight, there may be little hope, but at least you know you tried. If you’re checking in online and notice there are only middle seats left to pick, call the airline and see if an actual human can help you out. If not, check with the agent when you check your bags at the airport. Then check again at the gate. Even ask a flight attendant once you’ve boarded the plane and heck, check again once you’ve reached cruising altitude. Politeness always helps in this kind of situation. They get it — the middle seat sucks. But if you’re whining or rude about it, they’ll be less inclined to do you a favour.
2. Accept it
So that didn’t work? Now all you can do is accept your fate. You’re going to be on the plane for a little while and you’re going to be in the middle seat. Huffing and puffing about it will just serve to irritate you (and possibly others around you) and it doesn’t change reality for the better. No one stays on a plane forever so take some small solace in the fact that this too shall pass. Breathe, relax and settle in.
3. Get comfortable
After you’ve reached acceptance, move on to making the most of it. Planning ahead for this phase will help you out. Make yourself comfortable by bringing along a neck pillow (it may even be worth buying a comfy overpriced one from the airport gift shop if you discover your middle-seat fate at the last minute), an eye shade and some earplugs — especially if you’re on a long-haul flight but even if you’re not. You’re not going to discover some secret comfortable face-on-your-seatback-tray position that no one has ever thought of before, so the most comfortable you’ll be will probably involve your legs on the floor, sitting upright in your seat with a neck pillow for support, earplugs for a bit of quiet and an eye shade for a bit of privacy.
Dress comfortably (elastic-waist pants, warm socks, removable sweater). Recline your seat. This is a contentious issue when it comes to airplane etiquette but I’m of the belief that you paid good money for that seat and all the (limited) space it occupies, so go nuts. The person behind you can do the same, but be considerate about it (don’t slam it back the second the seatbelt sign turns off, and bring it back up at meal times).
Don’t bring a lot of carry-on luggage but if you do, make sure it can fit in the overhead bin. You want to keep the space under the seat in front of you free to get as much leg room as possible. Make sure anything you’ll need for the flight (book, iPad, water, etc.) can fit in your seat pocket.
4. Entertain yourself
If you’re not good at sleeping on planes at the best of times, you’ll be worse at it when you’re in the middle seat so don’t kid yourself with lofty goals of getting some shut-eye on a red-eye and instead bring along some entertainment. Seatback entertainment is often all you’ll need, so don’t forget headphones. But also bring along a book, or load up an iPod with audiobooks, which can be a bit more engaging over a longer period.
5. Be friendly
You’re going to be sandwiched between two strangers for awhile so you might as well strike up a bit of friendly conversation. The ability to read social cues is especially important here because you don’t want to be that yammering seatmate who keeps talking even when the guy next to you has put on his eyeshade and headphones. While the tendency is to keep to ourselves on a plane, you may luck out by sitting next to someone who can offer a bit of conversation, which will help take your mind off who gets which part of the armrest.
If you prefer to keep to yourself and find yourself next to a chatty passenger who’s not picking up on your cues, just be polite and say you’d like to get some rest/watch a movie/stare into space and curse this whole situation. They should understand, though as John Candy has shown us, sometimes they don’t.