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Bribing among airline passengers reaches new heights, as seat choices get scarce

airline_cabin_reuters.jpg

With preferred seats harder to get, passengers are desperate enough to offer bribes to their fellow fliers.  Reuters

Getting the seat you want on a flight has never been more of a hassle.

Last year, domestic flights in the U.S. were 83 percent full, the highest passenger load factor recorded since 1945.  On top of crowded flights, most airlines have schemes in place to reserve choice seats for frequent flyers or those willing to pay a fee

Amid this atmosphere, some passengers are desperate enough to offer bribes to get their preferred seat. 

Airline employees can lose their jobs for accepting bribes, so few are willing take the risk of offering an upgrade or a better seat in exchange for a kickback. In some countries, bribes can still get you onto a full flight or in a better seat, but in the U.S., passengers who can’t get their way may be stuck pulling out their wallet and approaching their fellow passengers.

While not illegal or prohibited by the airlines, passengers exchanging bribes is a concern for some who say it will create chaos in the cabin.

“It could start a trend that will be hard for the airline industry to turn off. Once the airlines start letting this happen it could cause serious problems, because inevitably there will be disputes. Where is it going to stop?

- Dr. Joyce Hunter, associate professor at Saint Xavier University

Last month, Jason Goldberg, the CEO and founder of Fab.com offered his fellow passengers $100 to swap seats in the first class cabin of a flight from Stockholm to Newark so that he and a colleague could collaborate on a work project. When they declined the offer, he vented his frustration to his 37,000 Facebook followers.

“The dude next to Bradford (his colleague) was just a jerk,” he wrote. “Said he was too comfortable to move.”

Reaction to the startup millionaire’s rant in the blogosphere was swift and harsh. “Why should anyone move from their seat at any cost? Perhaps the person didn't think it was worth a lousy 100 bucks to give up their seat and were comfortable,” posted one Facebook user on Goldberg’s timeline. Others called the CEO, “entitled,” and the move “revolting.”

Golberg is hardly the first to offer incentives like this to fellow passengers. Last year, a couple flying with twin infants made headlines for trying a more charming approach.  Soon after boarding, they preemptively handed out goodie bags of candy to neighbors for the inconvenience of being seated next to two 14-month olds.

So what do airlines do when passengers offer each other cash or other inducements to swap seats or to get more comfortable on a flight?

We contacted United, American, Southwest and Delta and none of these airlines have a clear policy regarding passengers selling seats to each other. United said that passengers who wish to change their seating assignment should speak to a gate agent, American said they were unaware of the issue, and Southwest claimed it wasn’t a problem for their passengers because they have an open seating policy.

Dr. Joyce Hunter, an associate professor at Saint Xavier University and the author of a book about air rage, said that the airlines ignore this issue at their own peril.
“It can only be bad thing for people to be haggling over seats,” said Hunter, who worked in the airline industry for more than 30 years. “It could start a trend that will be hard for the airline industry to turn off. Once the airlines start letting this happen it could cause serious problems, because inevitably there will be disputes. Where is it going to stop?”

Currently, if onboard disputes arise, it’s up to the cabin crew to resolve the situation. In any in-flight disagreement, if the captain considers an argument a security issue, he can have the offending passenger removed from the plane.

Heather Poole, a flight attendant for a major U.S. carrier and the author of Cruising Attitude: Tales of Crashpads, Crew Drama, and Crazy Passengers at 35,000 Feet, has seen passengers offering each other cash to switch seats without incident, and even has resorted to bribing fellow passengers herself. When she was traveling with her 3-year-old son, bought another passenger lunch and drinks in order to entice him to switch seats, so she could sit next to her child.

"If I saw someone trying to pay someone else off (to switch seats), I wouldn't interfere. I'd assume they knew each other and someone owed the other person money," said Poole.

Experts say the traveling public should expect more seat jockeying, as more travelers get stuck in middle seats or away from family members.

Andrew Thomas, an associate professor at the University of Akron and travel industry expert, said that passenger bribe attempts are an “unintended consequence” of airlines trying to squeeze more revenue from ad-on fees.

“Flying used to be a Neiman Marcus experience but now it’s a Walmart experience and fading quickly,” he said. “You might see people auctioning off their seats like people sell baseball tickets on Stubhub.”

Yet, John DiScala, a frequent traveler and the founder of JohnnyJet.com, said paying each other for seat switches, at least in theory, isn’t such as bad thing.

“If you’re desperate, in this day and age, I don’t know if its poor taste to offer (another passenger) money for a seat switch,” said DiScala, who has never offered a bribe, but admits that he once tipped a TSA official $10 after being allowed to cut the security line when he was late for a flight.  “Some people would be happy to move for $100.”

DiScala said that the best way to carve out the space you want on a flight is to simply be nice to everyone, the airline staff and your fellow passengers.

“I bring two types of chocolates with me when I travel, one for the gate agents and one for the flight attendants,” he said. “I get treated like a rock star and I don’t consider it to be a bribe.”