On Oct. 19, 2016, a man stood up for the middle guy, and taped it. His video, promptly uploaded to YouTube the next day, shows the videographer, the middle passenger in a three-across airplane row, brazenly stealing an armrest from the guy in the window seat, who apparently thinks he owns the thing.
This is an unbelievably stupid thing to do on a plane in the 21st century. Someone could have ended up subdued by fellow passengers. Plus, the guy in the window seat was robbed in his sleep. But Mashable's Brian Koerber thinks the thief was "brave," if a bit discourteous.
"There's no question about it: the person in the middle seat on an airplane gets to use both armrests," Koerber writes, but "... most people would rather endure a flight with one rest than awkwardly attempt to reclaim their space."
Koerber, and most others who air opinions on the matter, think the man who made the video wasn't stealing anything.
Most people agree that shared armrests belong to the middle seat. The passenger in the window seat can lean on the wall of the cabin, and the passenger in the aisle seat can lean into the aisle, but the passenger in the middle seat has nowhere to go, so that poor soul gets dibs on the shared armrests. It's a "consolation prize," writes Robin Abrahams on the Boston Globe.
Abrahams calls it "folk ethics." Others say social custom. Airlines are silent on the matter (as were the four flight-attendant organizations we contacted for comment), perhaps wary of mandating simple courtesy. Offering the armrests to a middle passenger is like offering your seat to a pregnant woman: You should do it, but you don't have to.
"The armrest is technically up for grabs," according to Diane Gottsman, national etiquette expert and owner of The Protocol School of Texas, "but the person most inconvenienced, generally the person sitting in the middle, should have first choice," she writes in an email.
By Gottsman's standard, condition, more so than location, determines armrest dibs.
The Rule of Inconvenience
It's tough to imagine a time when the middle-seat passenger isn't in the worst condition, but apparently it happens. Jen Carlson argues on Gothamist that if the middle passenger is a tiny person, and the other two passengers are larger, giving the middle passenger both armrests would be like providing a free upgrade to first-class seating.
The inconvenience test works in movie theaters, too. Gottsman says if you know the person next to you, and "you are terribly uncomfortable, because you have theatre food and shopping bags," your friend should give you the armrest.
It even works in trucks. When Max Robinson, the owner of a U.K. moving company, has his team out on jobs, they eat lunch in the three-across cab.
"Nobody wants to sit in the middle — you don't get a window, you can't rest your head against a wall, you can't see what is going on at the sides of the truck. Your leg room is also limited," Robinson writes. "The very least the person sitting in the middle deserves is the armrests!"
The team regularly rotates lunch positions to avoid middle-seat fatigue.
Not That Simple
The inconvenience rule has limits. For instance, Gottsman says in a crowded movie theater, if you don't know the person next to you, "whoever places their arm on the rest first is the person who has first option."
Carlson takes that to the air. While she fully supports the inconvenience rule, she puts a clock on it: If the middle-seat passenger fails to occupy the armrests by the time the row is fully seated, she claims, "it's anyone's game."
Perhaps what we saw in that armrest video was not a man standing up for the middle guy, but one standing up for empathy. Everyone knows the middle seat sucks, and that it sucks even more without the armrests. With some awareness of and consideration for our fellow passengers, and maybe even a willingness to share, the armrest debate would be moot.
Of course, standing up for empathy works better if you don't gleefully film yourself knocking someone's arm off an armrest so you can capture his reaction and humiliate him online. Gottsman suggests using words.
"If there is a legitimate reason to have an armrest concern," she writes, "speak kindly and civilly to the person next to you and let them know you are concerned. Be very aware of your tone of voice and body language, keeping your voice pleasant and non-confrontational. State your concern politely."