Robert Silk
Robert Silk

Onboard a Southwest flight in September from Denver to San Diego, I noticed one passenger who was especially strategic in her efforts to discourage others from sitting next to her.

Though she was in a row of three seats that was otherwise empty, the young woman had chosen to sit in a middle seat rather than at the window or on the aisle. On her lap was her service or emotional support dog.

Like several people who had boarded the plane before me, I walked past the woman and her row, ultimately selecting an aisle seat in a more crowded row a bit farther back.

From my diagonal vantage point on the aisle, I sat and watched as a number of other passengers chose ostensibly worse seats, rather than sitting next to the woman. Some went farther back in the plane, as I had done. Others chose middle seats rather than sitting in the window or aisle next to the woman and her pet.

It was a nearly full flight, however, so ultimately other passengers did sit next to the woman, leaving her stuck in that middle seat. Her gambit, as I saw it, had failed.

Choosing an airplane seat can be complicated, especially for the bulk of travelers for whom price is one of the primary concerns. That's especially the case on Southwest, which doesn't assign seats. But it's also true on the legacy airlines, which now charge for advanced assignments in what they consider to be the better coach seats -- namely, seats toward the front of the economy class that are on the window and the aisle.

And it's true as well on ultralow-cost carriers, which charge for advance seat assignments throughout the plane.

The decisions one must make on Southwest, though, are the most nuanced, and it's a challenge that I've taken on more frequently since May, when I moved from the Miami air market, where Southwest flies only out of Fort Lauderdale, to Denver, the carrier's fourth-largest base.

Since increasing my Southwest flying, I've found myself prioritizing what I want most in a seat assignment. Space, I've decided, trumps all. After that comes a quiet environment. Less important is being toward the front of the plane.

Space, though, has a variety of connotations. Most notably, there's legroom and there's side-to-side space.

For Southwest, legroom is uniform unless you're in an exit row. And obtaining an exit row seat is often tricky without purchasing either a pricey Business Select ticket or the carrier's Upgraded Boarding ancillary product, which guarantees one of the first 15 boarding positions.

More important to me than the extra legroom, however, is extra width. So that means that being next to an open seat is my No. 1 priority. It also means that middle seats are to be avoided whenever possible.

With that in mind, I've settled on choosing an aisle or window seat toward the back of the plane when I have a relatively early boarding position. With load factors on Southwest flights hovering around 83%, I generally assume that I'm not going to get an entire aisle to myself. So sitting toward the back, my best hope is to be next to an open center seat.

Whether I choose aisle or window often depends on the length of the flight and the time of day. Short flights and clear daylight conditions for looking out the window buoy the window seat. Flights of three hours or longer, on which I'm likely to either need the bathroom or want to take a stretch, increase aisle seat appeal.

Once I am seated, and a second person has also joined the row, I do my best to look a bit unfriendly. From an aisle position I'll even put down my tray table and read, pretending for a short moment not to notice individuals who are scrutinizing my row. Maybe, my thinking goes, a surly posture will discourage potential seat mates from asking if they can slide in.

Of course, my strategy isn't uniform. As I said, choosing a seat on a Southwest flight is a nuanced process. One important step, I've learned, is to ask ahead of time whether the flight is full. If the answer is yes, I can assume that I won't experience the relative luxury of an open middle seat. So, why not choose a seat closer to the front of the plane (assuming there's still space in the overhead bin in that vicinity when I board).

Several more factors come into play when I have a late boarding position, thereby making me the person who is choosing a seat on a row that already has two people in it.

Aside from the usual factor of middle versus aisle or window, I look closely at the size of the people I might sit next to. A petite passenger is obviously the No. 1 option, typically a woman or a child of an old enough age that I can have a reasonable expectation of good behavior, say age 10 or over.

A broad-shouldered man, conversely, is a no-go. I learned this lesson the hard way on a June flight from Los Angeles when I jumped at the fool's gold of a window seat with a late boarding position, only to find myself forced into spending the flight leaning away from the stocky man to my right. He was perfectly polite, yet I detested him.

But even after I identify a seat surrounded by suitably undernourished passengers, there's more to consider.

For one thing, I must admit I'm one of those horrible people who just dislikes babies on a plane. So I'm only slightly ashamed to admit that on Southwest, I do my best to scan two rows forward and back for babies and toddlers before choosing what otherwise looks like an enticing seat option.

The many considerations that accompany the open seating procedure of Southwest could lead many to think of the seat-selection process at other airlines as straightforward. But don't be fooled into complacency. American, United and Delta all now charge extra for passengers to reserve what they consider to be preferred seats within the economy section.

To be clear, these aren't seats with extra legroom or early boarding. These are ordinary coach seats that are typically either on the window or aisle and are located in the front half of the economy cabin. For example, as of this writing Delta was charging $59.99 to reserve "preferred seats," such as a window seat in row 22, on a Feb. 17 flight from Denver to Atlanta.

Travelers, in my view, should think twice about paying such a hefty fee for these seats. They offer nothing that seats a few rows farther back don't, save that flyers are able to get off the plane a minute or two earlier. Are those couple of minutes worth $60? Not on my journalist's salary.

Further, you might end up with one of these seats even if you don't select a seat in advance. That's because at check-in the carriers will assign for free any preferred seats that weren't purchased. After all, they've got to put all of their economy class ticket holders somewhere.

The only strong reason I know of to purchase preferred seats on the mainline carriers is to guarantee you'll be seated next to a traveling companion, since sometimes the carriers don't provide the option of selecting two or more free seats next to each other when booking.

I take a similar approach when deciding whether to reserve a seat on ultralow-cost carriers Spirit, Frontier and Allegiant, which charge for all seat selections ahead of check-in.

One additional advantage of copping to such a fee, however, is that you can typically guarantee that you'll avoid a middle seat. (On the mainline carriers, economy passengers can typically reserve middle seats for free since they aren't considered "preferred.")

But just as on the main lines, you might just luck into a good seat at check-in without paying a fee.

There's one last thing that I plan to consider when I book on Spirit. The carrier has become something of an industry leader when it comes to dynamic pricing of ancillary products, such as seats. In layman's terms, that means Spirit has become sophisticated at charging varying prices for seat selection based upon the demand for each specific flight.

So, if a seat price looks cheap enough at the time of booking, I'm going to be giving more consideration to coughing up the $15 or so extra. Better to do that than to be stuck later with a choice of either paying much more or resigning myself to hours of middle-seat discomfort coupled with the carrier's tight 28 inches of legroom.

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