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Suppose I am on a commercial airline flight. People are boarding. I am seated. A person comes up to me and asks "Would you mind changing seats with me so that I can sit next to my spouse?". I reply that I will change seats with her for $100 cash. She's gives me the cash. We trade seats.

Is this legal?

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    I doubt that there's a law against it, but it might go against the airline's contract of carriage (which you agreed to when you bought the ticket), particularly if you're changing between classes. Also, it might be worth asking this question on Travel instead. Oct 3, 2022 at 11:56
  • Seat swapping is not the same thing as selling a seat. You may want to edit the title question. Oct 3, 2022 at 15:10
  • The circumstance presented is both swapping and selling. Oct 3, 2022 at 19:54
  • I think there is a subtle difference, but I'm not going to argue about it... Oct 3, 2022 at 21:35
  • I'm not looking to argue either, but legal direction can hinge on subtle semantics. Oct 4, 2022 at 18:22

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You can look up the contract of carriage for the flight-type (e.g. domestic or international) and airline, here is one sample. That contract does not address the question. Nothing in the contract says "you must sit in the seat that you were assigned", and nothing expressly forbid seat-swapping (for consideration or otherwise). It is therefore reasonable to assume that seat-swapping is allowed, and it is unlikely that an airline would care (leaving aside Putt-Putt Air which runs tiny little planes with careful weight-balancing).

Assaulting a crew member is a crime, and under a separate law, it can result in a civil penalty, which extends to "any action that poses an imminent threat to the safety of the aircraft or other individuals on the aircraft". This translates into certain regulations such as 14 CFR 91.11, which says that "No person may assault, threaten, intimidate, or interfere with a crewmember in the performance of the crewmember's duties aboard an aircraft being operated".

There is no actual law that says you must comply with crew member instructions. Failure to comply might be interfering with crew member's duties, but isn't so automatically. There are also specific enforceable regulations regarding smoking and seat belts in 14 CFR 121.317.

So there is nothing illegal about voluntary seat-swapping, whether for free or for money. There is some risk that an airline would decide that crew members have a duty to prevent seat-swapping, and the FAA will probably support the airline's decision at least w.r.t. civil penalties.

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    What do the two middle paragraphs have to do with anything? Oct 3, 2022 at 16:16
  • @MichaelHall I had the same question. Reading the last paragraph, I think those were trying to say that if the flight attendant stops you and you get all huffy, the you could be in trouble.
    – Damila
    Oct 3, 2022 at 20:02
  • Is violating the contract violating the law? Oct 4, 2022 at 18:23
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    @AlLelopath, yes (unless the contract is for some reason void or unenforcable). However, it only violates civil law (i.e. you may be liable to pay damages), not criminal law (i.e. you cannot receive criminal punishment, such as a fine or prison sentence).
    – sleske
    Dec 21, 2023 at 12:06

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