Airplane Seat Change Etiquette & Tips

Airplane Seat Change Etiquette & Tips

51

Airplane seating arrangements can be complicated, especially when you’re traveling with others — some airlines charge to assign seats, some airlines don’t assign seats in advance, some people may book last minute and not be able to reserve seats together, etc.

There’s only so much that airline reservations agents and gate agents can do to seat people together, so often if you want to sit together, you may be relying on the kindness of strangers. In this post I wanted to share my general philosophy on switching seats with other passengers — what’s the best way to go about asking, and under what circumstances do I agree to switch seats?

When should you switch seats with others on airplanes?

When it comes to onboard seat swaps, I have a few thoughts both for the person asking to switch seats, and for the person being asked to switch seats.

If you’re the one asking to switch seats:

  • Try to be as fair as possible — ideally ask someone to swap comparable seats, meaning an aisle for an aisle, or offer them a better seat, like an aisle seat in exchange for a middle seat
  • Don’t take someone’s seat without asking — if you want someone to switch seats, ideally don’t actually take their seat without asking first (which comes across as presumptuous), but rather try to approach them as they get to their seat
  • It can never hurt to ask, and tone matters — there’s something to be said for the way in which you ask someone to switch seats, as there’s a big difference between saying “yeah I took your seat but you don’t mind switching, right?” and saying “is there any chance you wouldn’t mind switching seats with XYZ, we weren’t able to get seats together?”
  • Accept no for an answer — someone made a decision to assign a specific seat, so if they deny you, don’t badger them or be rude if they say they’d like to keep their seat
Try to be reasonable with seat change requests

If you’re the one being asked to switch seats:

  • You should never feel pressured to change seats — ultimately you assigned a seat and are entitled to sit there, so don’t feel pressure to change seats
  • Recognize there may be reasons people couldn’t sit together — try to be compassionate, as you don’t know what others are going through; for example, people could have booked a flight last minute because they’re headed to a funeral
  • Be polite — I think this should be true for just about any interaction in general, but respond politely, and if you’d like, maybe even explain why you prefer the seat you have (for example “I like an aisle seat because I go to the bathroom often,” “I like a window seat because I like looking out the window,” or “I don’t want to be in a bulkhead because I have a bag that I want to keep at my feet”)
Be polite, but don’t feel pressured to change seats

My policy on switching airplane seats

While I don’t think you should feel like you have to switch seats, I still will in a vast majority of cases. My philosophy is quite simple:

  • I’ll always honor a seat change request if it’s a similar type of seat (a non-bulkhead aisle for a non-bulkhead aisle, a bulkhead window on one side for a bulkhead window on another side, etc.) and I’m not traveling with someone
  • While I generally prefer window seats, I’ll almost always agree to switch to an aisle seat (or other non-horrible seat) if the person is polite about their request, and if I feel like they have a legitimate reason to ask for the request (in other words, not just that they like a window seat more than I do, but rather that they’re traveling with a loved one)
  • At the end of the day I’m fortunate to travel as much as I do, I recognize a lot of people have less vacation time and travel may be even more special for them, and if I can allow a couple or family to sit together by slightly inconveniencing myself, that’s a small price to pay to make someone else happy
I do love beautiful window views

Ironically I’m too sheepish to ask others for similar seat change requests. I’ll politely ask others to make a switch to an identical seat in another row, but personally I couldn’t bring myself to ask someone to switch their type of seat.

The one exception is when I’m traveling in economy with someone, where I typically book an aisle and a window seat, hoping the middle seat stays empty. When it doesn’t stay empty, I’ll offer the person in the middle seat the window or aisle seat, and I’ve never been turned down. I think that’s fair, and a win-win.

But please, folks, don’t be ridiculous, like that time I flew MIAT Mongolian from Ulaanbaatar to Frankfurt, and was asked by a passenger if I could move from business class to economy class so that a woman could sit next to her husband. That’s just greedy — the correct etiquette there would be to ask the person sitting next to your husband in economy if they want to sit in business class.

Don’t be like that lady on my MIAT Mongolian flight…

Bottom line

On just about every flight there are several people looking to switch seats, to be able to sit next to travel companions. I think it’s perfectly fine to ask others to accommodate this, though don’t be surprised if you’re rejected. If you’re going to ask others to switch seats, try to be as fair as possible, and swap for a comparable or worse seat, rather than for a better seat.

Personally I try to be very accommodating of seat change requests. Life is short, and I want to do what I can to help people spend as much time as possible with their friends and loved ones, even if it’s just a few hours on a plane. That being said, I don’t count on the same courtesy in return. If I’m traveling with a friend or loved one and it’s a “reasonable” swap I’ll certainly ask nicely, but there are no hard feelings if they don’t honor it.

I’m curious to hear what OMAAT readers think — what’s your policy on airplane seat swaps?

Conversations (51)
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  1. David Bowman Guest

    My wife and I have a long 15hr flight from China to London. As it happens she is in Business class whilst I’m in Economy. She suggests we swap seats at the half way point in the flight so that we can both get to sleep horizontally for a few hours. Do airlines allow this anyone know?

  2. vailtux Guest

    I don't ask anyone to change seats with me. It's good to plan ahead.

  3. brianna hoffner Diamond

    I actually disagree with the suggestion to explain yourself. “No.” is the best response if you really don’t want to switch. Explanations invite a further debate about the validity of your reasons or some way to address them. If they press you after a “No.” i usually follow with “[long uncomfortable silence, slow annoyed look up from my phone] I already told you it’s not going to happen [look back down at phone]”

  4. iamhere Guest

    It depends on the country and where you are traveling. Sometimes there may be a special reason why someone may be placed in your seat by the staff on board. When in the rare situation this happened to me I asked the flight attendant to handle it with the other passengers.

  5. iamhere Guest

    I had to laugh about your example being asked to switch business to economy. Did the passenger offer anything besides changing?

  6. Dixieboz Guest

    Reading all these remind me of the time I ended up in the back of a very crowded plane. But the front section of the plane was almost deserted. I asked the FA if I could move up. (I had status, not sure how I (and my family) ended up in the back.) Anyway. I sat in a center aisle seat. The woman on the other center aisle seat asked me to change rows. She...

    Reading all these remind me of the time I ended up in the back of a very crowded plane. But the front section of the plane was almost deserted. I asked the FA if I could move up. (I had status, not sure how I (and my family) ended up in the back.) Anyway. I sat in a center aisle seat. The woman on the other center aisle seat asked me to change rows. She said she wanted all 4 seats so that she could sleep on the way. My husband was now behind me and my daughter on the side aisle, so I said I wanted to sit nearby them. She was so mad that SHE moved up to a different row where all four seats were free.

  7. Richard Guest

    IT depends, but $200 cash immediately or 7500 miles immediately and I might change seats. The airlines have limits to the # of miles that can be deposited by the flight staff.

    Not mentioned, but the seat is not yours to give (or take).

  8. Fed UP Guest

    I always get asked to move..... I almost always book a First Bulkhead Window... I actually prefer the bulkhead, I can easily get around the person in the aisle...

    It's almost always a couple who get upgraded at the last minute, after I have paid for a full first class ticket... and the tone is always.. you are not important, because you are traveling alone, and we are special, since we are a couple traveling...

    I always get asked to move..... I almost always book a First Bulkhead Window... I actually prefer the bulkhead, I can easily get around the person in the aisle...

    It's almost always a couple who get upgraded at the last minute, after I have paid for a full first class ticket... and the tone is always.. you are not important, because you are traveling alone, and we are special, since we are a couple traveling together...

    And you are correct, recently I witnessed someone who just took a seat before asking, super rude... if it was me, I would ask them to move, just because... because they just took what they wanted....

    1. D3kingg Guest

      @Fed UP

      It’s definitely your seat let them know they should go to their assigned seat and ask their other seatmate to switch with them. Then it’s no longer your problem the burden is now with 3A lol

  9. Rooster Guest

    My wife tells a story where the elderly gentleman in the seat next to her said "shortly a flight attendant will come up to you and ask you if you would change seats..... its for my wife.... please say no"

    1. Never In Doubt Guest

      Rooster, Thanks again to your wife, I needed the break.

  10. JorgeGeorge Paez Guest

    You forgot the most important part: whip out the BENJAMINS!

  11. LMR Guest

    This is a triggering topic for me. LOL.

    Flying Delta One back from CDG several years ago, and a flight attendant asked me if I were willing to give up my prime window seat for a bulkhead middle aisle seat so a newlywed could sit together.

    NO. NEVER. NOT MY WINDOW SEAT.

    The bride starts crying -- literally crying -- and started screaming "I just want to sit with my husband!" I went back...

    This is a triggering topic for me. LOL.

    Flying Delta One back from CDG several years ago, and a flight attendant asked me if I were willing to give up my prime window seat for a bulkhead middle aisle seat so a newlywed could sit together.

    NO. NEVER. NOT MY WINDOW SEAT.

    The bride starts crying -- literally crying -- and started screaming "I just want to sit with my husband!" I went back to scrolling my phone. You're telling me you could plan your international wedding, but you didn't have the foresight to book your seats so you could sit together? GTFO.

    Finally, the person sitting in the other middle aisle seat agreed to swap and took the aisle seat next to me.

    So not only did this entitled twat throw a temper tantrum in attempts to get my seat, she also pursued the better real estate seat first for herself and her husband instead of first offering the lesser seat to the woman who ultimately agreed. Some people are just effing a-holes.

    1. greg Guest

      These are the ones that are so frustrating… the level of entitlement is just crazy. I find people are generally more than happy to swap from a worse seat to a better one.

  12. henare Diamond

    The only circumstance under which I will agree to change seats is if I am seated next to someone else's minor child. I usually choose my seat far in advance to meet my needs, and anyone who has an issue with this is making their own problem.

    1. henare Diamond

      OK, that's not quite true. Once I did voluntarily swap seats with a college basketball player (on a regional jet). He was tall ... *seriously* tall ... and i had the aisle seat, while he had the window. He basically had to fold himself in half to sit in his assigned seat. Was glad to swap with the dude. (This was out of Spokane WA).

  13. Kelley P Diamond

    One time (a long time ago) I was on a flight in economy from Frankfurt to LAX (14 hour flight). I don't even remember which airline, but the cabin was a 3-5-3 (or maybe 2) configuration. I was in the five section with an aisle seat - I'm on the tall side so like the leg room, and I have to go to the bathroom a lot. German couple next to me in the center...

    One time (a long time ago) I was on a flight in economy from Frankfurt to LAX (14 hour flight). I don't even remember which airline, but the cabin was a 3-5-3 (or maybe 2) configuration. I was in the five section with an aisle seat - I'm on the tall side so like the leg room, and I have to go to the bathroom a lot. German couple next to me in the center and next to me seats - he was sitting in my seat when I entered the cabin. I told him he was in my seat and asked him to move. He tried the "I don't speak English" routine, so I switched to German. Then he asked me to switch to his center of the five seat so that he could have the extra leg room as he was "very tall". I said sorry, no. He refused to move. I fetched the flight attendant who told him he had to move. He was very pissy about it, took his sweet time while I stood in the galley nearby waiting for him to move, when he finally stood up he was actually just a tad shorter than me!! He ended up sitting next to me and the lady moved to the very center seat. He proceeded to open a newspaper as wide as he could into my face for half the flight. I was actually amused. People are funny. Generally, I am willing to trade for a "like" seat, but a center in a row of five for a 14 hour flight? NO. HARD no. I don't care how pissy you act about it.

  14. Chris Guest

    Looking for input: I booked an award flight ATL-LHR. A few hour before the flight, I paid for an economy window seat, $60 I think. I chose the seat because there was no one else in the row of three. After takeoff, the flight attendant facilitated the seating of two older talking siblings in my row, including the middle seat. No issues if someone takes the free aisle seat but I think it’s a foul...

    Looking for input: I booked an award flight ATL-LHR. A few hour before the flight, I paid for an economy window seat, $60 I think. I chose the seat because there was no one else in the row of three. After takeoff, the flight attendant facilitated the seating of two older talking siblings in my row, including the middle seat. No issues if someone takes the free aisle seat but I think it’s a foul to take a free middle seat. I paid for my seat because I saw a free middle seat. If it had been paid for or assigned by the airline, I’d have no issue. Am I wrong to be upset? Should I be more upset with the flight attendant or the person who thought it okay to move to a free middle seat.? I’ll never pay for a sest on VS again.

    1. Gaurav Community Ambassador

      I understand your frustration but seat assignment changes can happen at any time. Someone might take those seats after you paid. Your payment entitles you to your seat, not any of the other ones.

    2. Chris Guest

      That’s the thing, this wasn’t a seat assignment. It was a move after takeoff to an unassigned middle seat. (I would have understood if it was a parent wanting to sit next to a young child.) Even if I hadn’t paid for my seat, I still think it’s bad form to move to an empty middle seat.

  15. grichard Guest

    My wife and I were traveling together on a short domestic flight and my wife ended up with an upgrade. Also boarding the plane were a woman with her elderly, wheelchair-using mother. They had clearly bought a first class seat for the mother to be comfortable, and her daughter went back to sit in coach, near me.

    We gave the woman the first class seat next to her mom and ended up together in...

    My wife and I were traveling together on a short domestic flight and my wife ended up with an upgrade. Also boarding the plane were a woman with her elderly, wheelchair-using mother. They had clearly bought a first class seat for the mother to be comfortable, and her daughter went back to sit in coach, near me.

    We gave the woman the first class seat next to her mom and ended up together in coach. She was absurdly, disproportionately grateful for this. But the good feeling for doing that was worth 10x more than a free vodka/tonic on a flight to Atlanta. Life is too short to be self-righteous and selfish.

  16. Brian L. Guest

    I will NEVER switch seats on the plane. EVER. If I can choose my seat online beforehand, other people can too. If they're too cheap to pay the fee to do so, or if they don't know how to do so, or if they're too dumb/lazy to do so, that's their problem, not mine.

    Having said that, since becoming knowledgeable about such things, I've only actually been asked once. Flying DFW-LAS, I was sitting in...

    I will NEVER switch seats on the plane. EVER. If I can choose my seat online beforehand, other people can too. If they're too cheap to pay the fee to do so, or if they don't know how to do so, or if they're too dumb/lazy to do so, that's their problem, not mine.

    Having said that, since becoming knowledgeable about such things, I've only actually been asked once. Flying DFW-LAS, I was sitting in the first row of F (my preferred location when flying domestic), and some guy asked me to switch so his wife could sit next to him. I declined, rather firmly. He said something like (I don't recall his exact words), "Oh, you don't want to switch? That's fine, we'll have a nice flight." I was thinking (but didn't actually say), "Yes, I WILL have a nice flight, because I'm sitting in the seat I picked." He eventually swithced seats with the guy sitting next to his wife.

    1. greg Guest

      So here's a situation I've been in traveling with a child. Booked well in advance and picked out seats. AA reduced flights that day and scattered our seats when they consolidated. I monitored/trolled the seat map each day leading up through check in (including calling/complaining to AA about it) and the best I could do was same row with a window seat on one side and an aisle seat on the other. The person who...

      So here's a situation I've been in traveling with a child. Booked well in advance and picked out seats. AA reduced flights that day and scattered our seats when they consolidated. I monitored/trolled the seat map each day leading up through check in (including calling/complaining to AA about it) and the best I could do was same row with a window seat on one side and an aisle seat on the other. The person who was across the aisle kindly swapped (it was a 2-2 plane) so that I could sit next to my toddler. I did everything right leading up to the flight yet you wouldn't switch in that situation?

    2. Brian L. Guest

      Nope. If your flights get rearranged, that's not my problem. If AA splits you and your kid, that's not my problem, either. And since when can toddlers sit in exit rows (where I was usually sit)?

    3. Sam Guest

      It might not be your problem, but if you can assist in a solution that doesn't disadvantage you - why not?

    4. Brian L. Guest

      When I fly and choose a seat in an exit row for the extra leg room, how is it not a disadvantage to give up that extra leg room?

    5. Sam Guest

      Ok, that's fair. It was impossible to tell from your post about 'never' changing seats that you are always flying in an exit row. You made it sound like you'd just never switch, period.

    6. BBK Diamond

      Some people are weird yes, I had a very similar scenario recently (but a 3-3 plane), my elderly dad in middle seat and me in the aisle across. I waited in my seat, when the aisle pax beside my dad arrived I politely asked to switch aisle for aisle across, not even downside of an empty seat in my dad's row because both rows were full. And the person made such a fuss that I almost feel uncomfortable for asking. Accepted but I was almost going to tell nevermind.

    7. grichard Guest

      Anybody else hear Simon and Garfunkel singing "I Am a Rock" in the background?

    8. Kelley P Diamond

      It's not always possible to get the seats you want. It seems to me that you're kind of a jerk.

    9. Brian L. Guest

      Your first sentence could apply to someone who is doing the asking, too. As for your second sentence, if someone is asking me to give up a seat that I paid the fee for, I don't care if I'm being a jerk to them.

    10. D3kingg Guest

      @Brian L

      I used to be like that. Try flying once a week for a month. It’s not that big of a deal.

    11. greg Guest

      The example I gave is literally moving across the aisle from one aisle seat to another in the exact same row and you’re saying you wouldn’t even do that? To each their own I guess.

  17. Scooter Guest

    I never make the request because I always book the seat I would like. But I will generally always honor someone else's request as long as its in the same cabin, not putting me in a middle seat, and they asked. If they went ahead on their own and took my seat before I was even on the plane, then the answer is a 100% no.

  18. Donna Diamond

    As a parent, I’ve always accommodated all requests within the same class of service for seat swaps for children, even to middle seats. In other cases, I will swap equal seats. One case comes to memory of a man who was upgraded to domestic F at the gate, seated next to me, and his wife seated in economy, asked me if I “wouldn’t mind switching” with her so she could sit next to her man....

    As a parent, I’ve always accommodated all requests within the same class of service for seat swaps for children, even to middle seats. In other cases, I will swap equal seats. One case comes to memory of a man who was upgraded to domestic F at the gate, seated next to me, and his wife seated in economy, asked me if I “wouldn’t mind switching” with her so she could sit next to her man. I politely declined saying I had paid for the seat and she responded sarcastically, “Thank you for being reasonable.”

    1. greg Guest

      I do the same for parents (as I posted earlier). There's always comments like "if you book ahead of time and pay you can always get your seats together" but as I mentioned in another post that is total BS. I've been victim to frequent airline swaps that scatter seats when traveling with kids - it's brutal. I rarely find that someone makes an unreasonable seat swap request and my requests always aim to make...

      I do the same for parents (as I posted earlier). There's always comments like "if you book ahead of time and pay you can always get your seats together" but as I mentioned in another post that is total BS. I've been victim to frequent airline swaps that scatter seats when traveling with kids - it's brutal. I rarely find that someone makes an unreasonable seat swap request and my requests always aim to make the seat indifferent or better. However, there's always the person that will decline out of principle.

    2. Kelley P Diamond

      asking someone who is sitting in F to switch to an economy seat just so you can sit next to your sweetie is not reasonable!

  19. greg Guest

    I'm a frequent AA flyer (plat pro) and fly with kids. Even booking in advance and picking out seats together there have been times where flight schedules have been consolidated and we get scattered across the plane. Even diligently tracking the seat map through check in there are times the best I can do is within an aisle of each other. In every case people are nice about switching (they don't want to sit next...

    I'm a frequent AA flyer (plat pro) and fly with kids. Even booking in advance and picking out seats together there have been times where flight schedules have been consolidated and we get scattered across the plane. Even diligently tracking the seat map through check in there are times the best I can do is within an aisle of each other. In every case people are nice about switching (they don't want to sit next to a 4 year old) but we really focus on making sure the swap is equivalent or better for the person.

    These situations make me sympathetic to families with young kids - sometimes you do everything in your power to sit together and you still get scattered. As long as the request isn't ridiculous (I'm in MCE next to their kid and the parent is 4 rows back - the kid should be swapping back, etc) I try to accommodate.

    1. GMP Guest

      Same situation here. It's not out of the ordinary for me to book flights for my family on points 330 days out so I can get the best rates on the best routing for big trips. Just about every time there are aircraft changes, schedule changes, etc. And some airlines are terrible about keeping similar seating arrangements automatically through these changes. I keep up with it in the months between booking and flying, but several...

      Same situation here. It's not out of the ordinary for me to book flights for my family on points 330 days out so I can get the best rates on the best routing for big trips. Just about every time there are aircraft changes, schedule changes, etc. And some airlines are terrible about keeping similar seating arrangements automatically through these changes. I keep up with it in the months between booking and flying, but several times I've been left begging a ticketing agent or fellow passenger on the day of travel despite booking nearly a year in advance. Thankfully, people are generally pretty accommodating.

      I generally follow the rules Ben lays out here, and I typically only ask because I have children flying with me in those cases, and the changes leave them sitting with strangers. In my mind, if an airlines deems a passenger so young that they would require an "unaccompanied minor" fee if travelling alone, then that airline should also guarantee that child can sit next to a responsible adult travelling on the same itinerary.

  20. D3kingg Guest

    Try to find a middle seat between a window and aisle already reserved. Then when the couple asks if you want to switch seats tell them no Thank you I prefer middle seats. I like to keep my arms crossed.

    1. greg Guest

      This has happened to me.. I ended up between a couple on the way home from Vegas and neither wanted to switch to the middle. They both proceeded to put back whiskey and cokes and said zero to each other the entire flight.

    2. Never In Doubt Guest

      greg, I enjoyed flying with you!

    3. kels2003 Member

      Same. Except I ended up in the middle seat and the two on either side of me talked the entire time over my head and passed things to each other. I asked if they wanted to sit together at least every hour (it was a transcon), and always “no that’s okay). I wanted to hurt them!

    4. BBK Diamond

      LOL, my spirit animal

  21. michsel James matos Guest

    I admit that I'm pretty hard about these things now. People used to be polite and reasonable. Now people are entitled and rude as well as scammers. I just saw the article where 15 people on one flight were in wheelchairs, most of them attempting to get better boarding position and better access to the overheads. Apparantly this is a common thing especially on Southwest where seating is not assigned. Can you imagine paying extra...

    I admit that I'm pretty hard about these things now. People used to be polite and reasonable. Now people are entitled and rude as well as scammers. I just saw the article where 15 people on one flight were in wheelchairs, most of them attempting to get better boarding position and better access to the overheads. Apparantly this is a common thing especially on Southwest where seating is not assigned. Can you imagine paying extra for A list or preferred boardi g only to have 15 people board ahead of you? This sort of behavior is the kind of thing that makes me now not willing to give people the benefit of the doubt.So unless you have a much better offer for me or a lot of cash upfront, it's a hard NO

  22. Sean M. Diamond

    A lot of (unintentional) white privilege in this piece unfortunately.

    If you are brown skinned and flying with a "Western" carrier you sit where you are assigned and route any seat swap requests via the crew. Not worth escalating a situation.

    1. Fred Guest

      Yawn. Always a little racist to bring racism to a non-racist topic. Well done.

    2. Scudder Diamond

      Fred- Always pretty privileged and ignorant to gaslight how pervasive and constant racism is. Well done.

    3. tda1986 Diamond

      Interesting. I'd like to understand the reasoning behind this. Is the concern that something will go badly if you are not in a seat that matches your ticket? Or you expect someone to say no because of racism?

      Personally, I'd be put off if someone went "over my head" to a flight attendant rather than just asked me politely. I would have though the passenger has entitlement issues and was trying to get the airline to agree with their entitlement to my seat.

    4. Joey Diamond

      Good etiquette guidelines but I'd also like to add that I swapped one time so a girlfriend can sit next to her boyfriend. I had a window seat and the new seat was also a window seat.... but it was next to someone quite large. I survived but I think next time I will definitely ask to see where the seat is located and take a glance to see if I want to swap seats or not rather than blindly agreeing as long as the seat is equal or better.

  23. TheRubioRoom Member

    I've never requested to swap seats, but at least two times come to mind that I've received a request. If memory serves both were a parent-child situation where they weren't able to get seats together and I was happy to oblige. I too always prefer the window but in both cases it was on a route I frequent so I didn't mind foregoing the usual wingview and (since I swapped into an aisle) feeling freer to get up to use the lav!

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grichard Guest

My wife and I were traveling together on a short domestic flight and my wife ended up with an upgrade. Also boarding the plane were a woman with her elderly, wheelchair-using mother. They had clearly bought a first class seat for the mother to be comfortable, and her daughter went back to sit in coach, near me. We gave the woman the first class seat next to her mom and ended up together in coach. She was absurdly, disproportionately grateful for this. But the good feeling for doing that was worth 10x more than a free vodka/tonic on a flight to Atlanta. Life is too short to be self-righteous and selfish.

7
Fred Guest

Yawn. Always a little racist to bring racism to a non-racist topic. Well done.

4
Never In Doubt Guest

greg, I enjoyed flying with you!

4
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