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I've read some people writing that they've seen people be caught sitting in First/Business class when they have economy class tickets. This was for international flights on big planes with several hundred passengers.

Is this even possible, or is it improbable that you won't get caught? (At least when food is served)

And are there any consequences that it might entail?

There's no need for a discussion on ethics.

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+1: 'There is no need for a discussion on ethics.' I like the classy way you put it and the just as classy way people respect your wish in their answers. –  Cetin Sert Mar 24 '13 at 1:11
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I'm surprised that there'd normally be any empty seats in the premium cabins. I assumed they'd always promote a frequent flier as a perk. –  Dan Neely Mar 24 '13 at 4:50
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Moving to an unassigned seat may potentially be viewed as suspicious behavior. The Wikipedia article on an incident has an accusation (I'm not saying that it's true) that some passengers "refused to sit in their assigned seats ... fanned out in the cabin, sitting in pairs close to the front, middle, and rear exit rows." –  Andrew Grimm Mar 24 '13 at 9:54
    
I find the odds of getting upgraded by simply being polite are good enough (assuming there are seats free) that I'd recommend this rather than taking the risk. –  Rory Alsop Mar 24 '13 at 11:32
    
@DanNeely Depends on the airline. Some (eg US carriers) often upgrade frequent fliers to fill up the higher class. Others would rather leave spare seats at the front to keep it quieter and avoid having too many people buy cheap tickets and count on being upgraded. So, depends on the carrier! –  Gagravarr Mar 25 '13 at 7:07
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3 Answers

up vote 23 down vote accepted

Usually flight attendants assigned on first and business classes make a quick head count after boarding is done. You can pass this if the class is almost full. In addition to that there are some techniques used to make sure that only people with the right boarding passes sit there, that's why there is always flight attendants in first and business classes at the boarding time, you think they are there to help you sit or to help you with your jacket, that's true but they are there also to check your boarding pass either by asking you directly or by looking at it while it's in your hand (many airlines have different boarding pass colors for different classes). Also in many airlines flight attendants are asked to check the passengers names before serving to make them feel welcomed, if your name is not in the seat plan then you are busted.

Out of personal experience as a cabin crew, with some luck there is somehow a chance of succeeding in sneaking into first or business class even with all what's mentioned above, especially in big planes and when first/business class is almost full.

What are the consequences? well, the maximum would be paying the difference between economy and first or business class and big embarrassment. Again, out of personal experience passengers always say that they thought this is their seat (AKA playing dumb) and we can not do anything other than sending them back to their original seat or sometimes leave them continue.

Finally, if the same door is used to board passengers from all classes then your chances are higher and you playing dumb if they catch you will be more acceptable.

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worst that can happen is having to pay the extra, plus a fine for breaching your contract, plus being blacklisted from flying that airline in the future. In my experience, flight attendants especially in 1st class and for better airlines in business class will know the passengers who're supposed to be there. They tend to be seniors with good skills at recognising faces and will know to call each passenger by name (regular passengers are even greeted by name on boarding, remembered from previous flights). Any stranger wandering in will be quickly and quietly (if they cooperate) removed back. –  jwenting Mar 26 '13 at 7:23
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On all of the airlines I've ever flown I'd say it's extremely unlikely that you wouldn't get caught. The one exception might be on smaller flights where business class is little more than economy with slight better service (eg, many intra-Europe flights).

Ignoring the possibility of a fellow passenger reporting you, or a flight attendant actually seeing you move, the main reason you're likely to get caught is simply due to the level of service provided in Business/First class. Flight Attendants normally have a list of all passengers sitting in Business/First class, and will use this list for everything from simply addressing the passenger by name through to using it to collect meal requests, keep track of what passengers are drinking, etc.

If a seat is occupied that is not is not shown on their list then you can expect they will very quickly start asking questions as to why, and ask to see your boarding pass or some other identification they can use to check against the passenger manifest to see where you are supposed to be seated. At that point the best you can hope for is to be move back to your original seat.

That's not to say that doing this can't work - and I'm sure at least some people have done it in the past - but the odds of it succeeding are extremely low, at least on a medium/long-half flight.

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I've seen lots of people busted for trying to sit in / move into business class seats on short haul flights, so I doubt you'll get away with it their either! –  Gagravarr Mar 24 '13 at 21:07
    
@Gagravarr depends on the airline I guess. And the flight. I've been boosted to business on occasion because of double bookings for economy. On other flights part of business class was reassigned to economy service because of lack of bookings for business class, economy passengers ending up in business class seats with economy service. During such flights there's bound to be more confusion and thus higher chance of "sneaking in". –  jwenting Mar 26 '13 at 7:25
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I had an experience somewhat similar to what you asked about a few years ago.

During the flight from New York to Zurich, Dec 2011, I was seated in the Economy class, left row window seat, where the leg space is close to nonexistent. Being 7' tall (212 cm) I was in for 8 and some hours of flying in a very unpleasant knees-to-my-chest position and didn't look forward to it.

Half an hour after the plane got off I waited for the personnel to exit the cabin going on their various duties and moved to the first row of seats in the center (the one usually charged extra due to the extra leg space it provides). After the steward walked past me two or three times within the next 10 minutes, he rightfully came to the conclusion that I was not supposed to be in that seat and approached me asking (quietly and very tactfully) if the seat I am sitting in is mine.

I explained to the steward as best as I could that I was having a really bad time in the seat that was originally assigned to me, and that due to the entire row (along with the whole center block of seats) being mostly empty I sincerely hope I would not be causing any discomfort or unpleasantness to the few passengers sitting relatively close to me.

I guess being sincere and polite helped, for after explaining me that he was required to charge an additional cost for the premium seats because a) that was his job, and b) if he didn't then everyone would relocate to the better seats, he asked me to give him a "credit card" (which happened to be my library membership card) from which he theatrically "deducted the additional cost" of my new seat, handed it back to me, wished me a pleasant flight and continued on his regular duties. I finished the flight in my new and much more comfortable seat.

TL, DR: As long as you are well mannered and have a sensible explanation for your request, there is a good chance that your needs will be met without much hassle, as long as you pay good attention that, while doing so, you don't put the person helping you in an uncomfortable situation. They are just doing their job, and it's in their best interest that you have a nice flight and have the urge to fly with them again. If they can help you, while not exposing themselves to scrutiny, in my experience they often will.

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