fb-pixel Skip to main content

The airlines have turned passengers into petty people. Here’s a way to fight back. DO it!

Adobe, Ally Rzesa/Globe Staff

Not that we needed more proof that the country likes to get worked up over nothing, but here comes another “outrage” anyway.

The only strange thing is that while the scandal du jour does involve flying, an airline is not the immediate villain. And it doesn’t involve a passenger who is abusive, intoxicated, violent, reclining, or god forbid, barefoot.

No, this time, the bad guy is a flier who committed the sin of offering his aisle seat to a guy who was stuck in the middle.

Never mind that almost no one likes middle seats — a 2021 social media survey by Virgin Australia found fewer than 1 percent of people choose the middle.


But it turns out that there is something worse than being sandwiched in between two strangers, vulnerable to Chatty Charlies on either side, forced to get up every time the schmoe in the window seat wants to use the bathroom, unable to enjoy the glorious open vistas available to the jerk in the aisle.

What’s worse, apparently, is feeling like someone else is trying to get what’s yours. Or even if technically not yours, not his either!

The incident in question went down in December, and here’s how it was described by the perpetrator, a writer-director-comedian named Zack Bornstein: “losing my mind,” he tweeted. “just offered the aisle seat to the guy sitting between me and my gf on a flight, and he said he’d rather stay in the middle seat between us.”

Even though the seat-swap offer benefited the other guy, the Twitter mob quickly found Bornstein guilty of the so-called “couple’s gambit,” wherein companions book an aisle and a window seat in hopes that the middle seat will remain empty.

And the vigilantes without a cause weren’t having it.

The post went viral, with a not-insignificant portion of people acting like Bornstein was trying to pull something.


“everyone wants a row to themselves, but [the] social contract stops us acting so selfishly,” one person tweeted.

“Real energy vampire is the one who booked two seats apart and is now making it someone else’s problem,” wrote another.

“I would definitely stay in the middle in such circumstances,” read another reply. “People trying to game the system on flights irritate me. I’d probably get up and down a few times too.”

Yeah, that will teach someone to offer you a seat you likely preferred!

What’s going on? Well, for starters, a growing body of evidence — including studies commissioned by the flight industry and observations from mental health professionals — show that engine noise, cabin pressure, and, of course, stress can trigger physical and emotional changes.

Fliers crave tomato juice. Some are more likely to cry watching movies. They engage in superstitious behaviors in hopes of warding off a crash.

So OK, maybe Middle Seat Man wasn’t in his right mind. But what about the people on the ground, the ones angrily tweeting at Bornstein?

Perhaps even though they were (likely) on the ground, just thinking about flying triggered irrational behavior.

And this brings us back to the airline not being the “immediate” villain in this situation. There wasn’t an airline CEO onboard trying to drag Middle Seat Man out of his spot, but airlines are the puppet masters who’ve made flying so miserable that passengers are practically forced into battle over scarce resources (see: the reclining-seats wars).


So let’s look at the couple’s gambit in a new light. Rather than being anti-fellow-passenger, think of it as a pro-passenger protest, one that could perhaps lead to change.

Indeed, after seeing the results of the survey that found fewer than 1 percent of fliers want the middle seat, Virgin Australia announced a “luckiest seat on the plane” lottery. Fliers who select or are assigned a middle seat will have a chance to win prizes totaling over $230,000.

See. Now they’re giving us something else to fight over.

Beth Teitell can be reached at beth.teitell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.