I have just returned from a trip to the UK with my wife. Both the outward and return flights were very busy but we managed to have a spare seat on our row. One way I would have put down to luck; both ways seemed rather less so. Pondering the matter, I think I may have discovered an important strategy. Since the likelihood of you and I being on the same flight is remote, I shall share my thinking with you. You may wish to put it to the test next time you fly with a low-cost airline, and if you do, please let me know whether the strategy worked for you, too.
Right! This strategy is for low-cost airlines where passengers select their own seats on boarding and the flight is heavily booked. It will work (I hope) so long as there are at least some seats which will be unoccupied. I am afraid that it only works for two people travelling together; sorry singletons! (Families travelling with young children are boarded first, and so do not affect the strategy.
The first thing to think about is layout and passenger seat preferences. The usual, short-haul route is flown by a plane offering two sets of three seats per row, with a central aisle. My guess is that the great majority of passengers prefer either an aisle seat or a window seat. I suspect very few have a preference for a centre seat. The couple should therefore occupy the window and aisle seats, leaving the centre seat empty (It is, after all, where you would want the extra space.). If you occupy the window and centre seats, you leave an open invitation to someone to choose your aisle seat. Conversely, if you occupy the centre and aisle seats, the appeal of a window seat is sufficient to make it worthwhile for a singleton passenger to disturb you to get to it.
The next question is where on the plane to put this into operation. Passenger psychology comes to the fore again here. In my view there are three - or possibly four - groups of passengers. There are those who wish to sit at the front of the plane, ahead of the wings. There those who hanker after the extra legroom seats over the wings. And there are those who are not particularly bothered where they seat. It is possible, though I find it hard to believe, that there is a fourth group with an active preference for the rear of the plane.
What can we deduce from this? Mainly that competition for seats over or ahead of the wings is such that even a centre seat will appeal more than heading further down the plane. On the other hand, people who have reached the rear half of the plane are more likely to continue moving down the cabin as the cabin crew urge them to do, with the assurance that there are still plenty of seats at the back. Moreover, having reached the rear of the plane, very few people will actually turn round and start to look for seats further forward unless they really have to; and they will backtrack only so far as necessary to find any empty seat.
I therefore recommend to those who want to grab a bit of extra space, the five rows immediately behind the final over-wing row. If there is even only one unsold seat on the flight, that is where I reckon you can make sure it’s between yours. Oh, and one final point; before the doors are closed and everyone is seated do not give any indication that the two of you have ever met before.
Give it a try and let me know how you get on.