A professionally dressed man floated to the back of the cabin during boarding. He approached a young man sitting on an aisle seat and said, “Will you change seats with me? I’m in a middle seat upfront and need to work on my computer and don’t have the space. I’ll pay you $100.” The man held up a crisp bill. The young man enthusiastically accepted the offer.

These are the lengths some air travellers take to avoid getting stuck in the centre seat on a plane.

In a three-seat setup on a plane, the poor fool in the centre gets the worst of all worlds: No window, no easy aisle access — and two armrests for which they may find themselves fighting their seatmates.

Later during that flight, the same man who shelled out $100 to ditch his centre seat assignment explained that he pays for aeroplane seat swaps often. The last-minute nature of his sales job often puts him, a frequent flyer, on standby lists which means more often than not he’s jammed in a middle seat. “But even when I’m not standby, sometimes paying another passenger is cheaper than upgrading,” he explained.

Should the double armrest access be left intact as the centre seat’s sole perk?

Not everyone has the disposable income to pay fellow passengers for a more desirable seat. And, depending upon the aircraft, that leaves at least one-third of passengers stuck in the middle.

But what happens when you’re part of that one-third? Should the double armrest access be left intact as the centre seat’s sole perk? And what do you do when your seatmates on either side start hogging?

The battle of the armrest is an eternally hot topic, says Daniel Post Senning, the great-great-grandson of American etiquette author Emily Post and a co-author of Emily Post’s Etiquette, 18th edition.

Practically speaking, the person in the middle should have the choice in claiming the armrests, says Senning.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be common knowledge, and it doesn’t convince some passengers to stay planted in the centre.

“I feel that the shared armrest was invented by a twisted person who wanted to see endless battles on who occupies each armrest,” says frequent flyer Eric Fung, an attorney and supermarket president in Minneapolis, in the US state of Minnesota. Fung travels at minimum four times a month. And some passengers use extreme tactics to get out of that wretched, sandwiched-in seat.

The person in the middle should have the choice in claiming the armrests.

Former British Airways cabin crew member Hayley Stainton tells the story of a passenger who launched into an argument with a pregnant woman in the middle seat, claiming she was taking more than her fair share of space. After much arguing, another passenger offered to switch his aisle seat with the pregnant woman.

“The rest of the flight was calm and I was shocked at how this fight had broken out so quickly,” says Stainton. “Little did I know until I reviewed the manifest upon disembarkation that the two ladies [arguing] were sisters, and a near-by passenger told me that the entire scene was scripted in attempt to secure an upgrade for the pregnant lady!”

[Seatmates] are obligated to follow the lead of the person in the middle seat.

Daniel Post Senning also suggests thinking beyond the seat and armrests and consider the person’s personal situation: “Everyone has a different shape and size,” he says. “Since larger people need more room, it requires our consideration. That is the practical reality.”

So the etiquette expert believes the middle passenger should be entitled to giving both their arms well-deserved surface space, but where do flight attendants stand on the issue?

“I think the person on each side has an entire armrest to themselves, so they are obligated to follow the lead of the person in the middle seat,” says Debbie Ferm, a former flight attendant for Compass Airlines, a regional carrier that operates on behalf of Delta. “If they want to lean completely on one armrest or the other throughout the flight, that's their prerogative.”

BA's Stainton offers a different perspective: “I believe that it should be shared, with each person having the opportunity to use it at different times throughout the flight. Perhaps if the person next to you is larger in size, elderly or with a child, then as a gesture of good will it should be given to them.”

Senning reminds passengers that the people in the middle seat only have what they have and life isn’t always fair. At least there are negotiation tactics.

“A compromise I have engaged in in the armrest wars has been occupying different parts of the same armrest,” said frequent flyer Fung. “For example, I use the back portion while a fellow passenger uses the front part.”

Still, he thinks that, even if you can work out some agreement, sitting in the centre seat is drawing the short straw — always has been, always will be.

“To me, the middle seat is the ultimate failure in trip planning,” Fung says. “I hate it. I will choose my seats early, upgrade, or pay fees to avoid the dreaded middle seat. By hook or by crook, I will not be in the middle.”

Beth Blair is a former flight attendant and a freelance writer.

For more insight from Hayley Stainton, visit her travel-centric blog, Lifeasabutterfly.

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