It’s official: the much-maligned middle seat is the least popular place to sit on an aeroplane. According to a survey of frequent fliers by Virgin Australia, less than one per cent would intentionally select the position as their first preference.
As a result, passengers lumped with the centre spot on the airline’s flights – whether by accident or design – can now enter into a draw to win prizes including free flights, tickets to sports matches, adventure holidays, and, perhaps most alluringly, one million frequent flier points. The only other requirement is to be one of the airline’s frequent flyer members. Perhaps the middle seat is about to start finding favour.
It’s unsurprising, of course, that the vast majority of people would rather sit by the window or on the aisle. The former offers unbeatable views, with the fuselage also providing a surface for the heads of those wanting to sleep. For those concerned about leg room, however, the aisle is the place to be: it provides access to a bit of extra space (just watch out for the drinks trolley), and makes the dash for the loo a nuisance-free endeavour.
One thing is clear: question your friends or family members on their favourite position and you can guarantee a quick-fire response. Window-devotees are perplexed as to why anyone would want to look at the seat in front or down the gangway, while those on the opposite end think the ability to move is a priority.
Mark Vanhoenacker, British Airways pilot and author of How to Land a Plane, remarks: “When I ask friends to describe what kind of air traveller they are, they usually respond with a certainty that suggests they figured out this flying lark the very first time they got on a plane.”
Every position has its negatives, however: the window seat lover is going to have to clamber over their fellow travellers to get to the bathroom, while those on the end might end up having to move to accommodate others.
Travel expert Gilbert Ott, the man behind God Save The Points and a keen proponent for the window seat, thinks he’s found the winning formula.
“With the curvature of most aircraft, you do actually have slightly more space in the window seat,” he says. “But the magic spot is the bulkhead or exit row window, where there’s often enough legroom to tiptoe past your neighbours without spilling their drinks.”
More seriously, in the event of an emergency landing those in the aisle seats are also more exposed to flying objects: something which more commonly can be an issue in heavy turbulence. Another weighty downside in the aisle seats is that they leave you more exposed to more people – cabin stewards and fellow passengers – wandering up and down and more likely to pick up any bugs they may be harbouring. For all the efficacy of air filters, planes are still places where infections spread.
What does your choice say about you?
Practicalities aside, most admit that their seating preference all comes down to one thing: whether they’d prefer to wake or be woken, disturb or be disturbed.
The window seat is clearly the spot for the more antisocial traveller, who would rather slip on the eye mask and avoid everyone else – although there’s the risk of an awkward exchange if they need to leave the seat.
Dr Becky Spelman, chief psychologist at Harley Street’s Private Therapy Clinic tells Telegraph Travel: “Passengers who favour the window seat like to be in control, tend to take an ‘every man for themselves’ attitude towards life, and are often more easily irritable. They also like to ‘nest’ and prefer to exist in their own bubble.”
It makes sense then, she says, that those who prefer the aisle are more likely to be of a reserved nature, less irritable and more considerate of others. That, or they’re a claustrophobe – or simply the victim of a weak bladder.
Behavioural Psychologist Jo Hemmings agrees. “Champions of the window seat tend to be more selfish,” she says. “As well as less anxious, seasoned flyers who are more confident in disturbing others.
“Aisle passengers are often more sociable and definitely more amenable as people. They are also more likely to be restless flyers and less adept at sleeping on planes.”
Then there’s that tiny proportion of people who opt for the middle seat. Nathalie Nahai, a behavioural psychologist and the author of Business Unusual, says that selecting that much-maligned spot probably indicates a certain amount of confidence. It’s a bold move: you’re probably plumping for less legroom, and getting up to use the bathroom is going to involve manoeuvring around everyone else. But some flyers actively enjoy the experience of sitting there.
“People who opt for the middle seat may be more extroverted, or just be more accepting and considerate than their peers,” says Nahai. If the middle seat selector is travelling alone, expect them to be conversationalists. The flight isn’t just a transportation option, it’s a way to socialise, so you’re likely to learn all about their family’s ailments and home renovation woes.
Nahai does note that people may end up in the middle seat because they lack the ability to refuse it. “It’s possible that some travellers sit there because they are disorganised or, if they are travelling in a group, because they have less authority or power within their cohort to choose otherwise.”
Essentially, they’re a follower, not a leader. Psychologist Dr Jane Gregory puts it more plainly: “It’s the only spot where you get two shoulders to cry on.”
Of middle seat fliers, Giulia Bianchi, a consultant and psychologist, adds: “Such people are mostly easy-going and may prefer this position for chatting with others. They are humble and not at all self-important.”
Whichever camp you fall into, however, it’s likely to resort in a disagreement at some point.
“A lot of arguments erupt on planes due to seating arrangements,” Dr Spelman remarks, “not to mention delays at check-in counters because people are so forceful and time-consuming in their negotiations.”
Which is more popular?
According to the Virgin Australia survey, around 62 per cent preferred the aisle seat and around 35 per cent favoured the window. A mysterious three per cent were willing to take any seat. And of course, less than one per cent preferred the middle seat.
The balance was flipped in a study conducted by Expedia in 2014: 55 per cent of their customers chose the window, versus 45 per cent who opted for the aisle. In 2016, the company further revealed that 34 per cent of passengers were willing to pay extra to secure a window seat, compared to just 15 per cent who would shell out for an aisle seat.
A Quartz report presented similar results in terms of preference (with just over 50 per cent in favour of window), but interestingly noted that men were more likely to prefer the aisle seat than women.
The conclusion? It’s far from an exact science, but indications have the window seat as the winner in the popularity stakes, only by a narrow margin.