Plane Etiquette 101

We survived the Week of Insanity. One more day of craziness at work, and then Steve can be fully devoted to getting ready for South Africa.

In the meantime, he has been sending me links to articles like this one. We are a very capable road tripping family, but Steve is so nervous for our flight. He actually despises flying and thinks the whole process is dehumanizing. (Airplanes are not designed for tall people.)

I'm a relatively naive flyer and need someone to tell me the rules. (I think Steve just needs some Xanax.) It was only two flights ago that I learned that it's not proper etiquette to recline your seat. . . just think of all the people I have irritated over the last thirteen years! (Can you believe that I didn't fly on a plane until I was eighteen?!)

Plane Etiquette 101

Flying can feel like torture.

The bone-dry cabin air is recycled. Spaces are ridiculously cramped. Passengers don’t always have ready access to food, water, and restrooms. It’s a fight waiting to happen—and happen it does.
Flash points include seat territory disputes, scuffles over luggage space, and arguments about unruly kids. The reluctant referees are flight attendants who are part waiters, part playground monitors, part sentinels against potential terrorism.
Here’s how to short-circuit five common midair melees:
Right-to-recliners: The average economy-class seat offers little legroom — the “pitch” between seats is around 28 to 34 inches — but when the guy in front of you reclines his seat as far as it goes, you’re wedged in. Airlines created this problem by squeezing an extra row or two of seats on a plane, but it’s up to passengers to solve it. Not the easiest thing, it turns out.
On one side, you have those who think because they paid for the seat, they should be able to use it any way they want. On the other are folks who believe the seat should never be reclined, but simmer in resentment when the person in front does. You could jam the seat in front with a device like the controversial Knee Defender (frowned on by the FAA, though no airline I know of has banned it), which is all but guaranteed to start a rumble.
The real solution is understanding that the space must be shared. Ask before leaning into it. Or, spend extra for a premium economy seat, which comes with a little more legroom. Another option: Ask to be seated in an exit row.
Armrest wars: The tight squeeze in economy class comes from all sides. With only 17 inches of space per seat, plus whatever you can negotiate on the armrests, many passengers find themselves packed in like wheat in a shock.
I recall the case of Arthur Berkowitz, who on a flight from Anchorage to Philadelphia was seated next to a passenger “of size,” whose girth “required both armrests to be raised up and allowed for his body to cover half of my seat.” Berkowitz stood for most of the trip, instead. But even when there’s room, who owns the armrests? If you’re seated next to a window or aisle, one of the armrests is yours to do with as you wish. But in the middle seat it’s not so simple.
Pushy passengers simply claim the space as if it’s a landgrab, defending it against your elbow incursions with occasional “ahems” and glares. Don’t become that person. Introduce yourself and smile. If you’ve done that early on, an armrest discussion later won’t be a tinderbox.
Overhead bins: The space above your seat does not belong to you exclusively. Overhead bins are a source of endless conflict, especially now, when passengers max out their carryons in order to avoid paying checked-luggage fees.
The answer is to carry a soft-sided bag, smaller than the maximum size allowed, that will fit, if necessary, in the space under your seat.
What about the rest of your stuff? Check it or ship it ahead.
Scofflaws: It’s true — failure to comply with a crew member’s instructions is a federal crime. Offenses range from minor infractions, like unbuckling a seat belt before the plane has come to a complete stop, to more serious violations such as making a call on your smartphone while the plane is on final approach.
It’s hard to know which rules are there for your safety and which ones are just silly. For example, the rules prohibiting the use of in-flight electronics, which are being reconsidered as I write this, seem oddly inconsistent. Why am I not allowed to use my iPad, but the pilots can use theirs?
More germane to this article, what’s a passenger to do when someone breaks the rules? Tattle? Look the other way? As someone who has been both witness and perpetrator (I’m pretty addicted to my devices), my advice is to let go of the little stuff.
The teen playing Samurai, a graphic video game, next to my five-year-old daughter? Beheading the enemy in front of a kindergartner is uncouth. But instead of making a fuss, I switched seats with my daughter.
OPKs: There’s nothing that sets off the fireworks as much as Other People’s Kids. On a recent flight from Honolulu to Los Angeles, I watched an elderly passenger who had the bad luck of being surrounded by screaming kids, one of them, unfortunately, my daughter, who, he remarked, “acted as if the plane was her personal playground.”
I did not argue. She was behaving that way, and try as I did, couldn’t be persuaded to just sit down and watch the romantic comedy playing on the flickering TV screens five rows away. Next to this hapless man, a newborn wailed. Behind him, a three-year-old with extreme aerophobia clung to her mother, weeping. It was the flight from hell for this poor gentleman. And yeah, for me, too.
OPKs are unfixable. All the responsible parenting in the world can’t make up for boredom or pressure in the ears or a really bad in-flight movie. May I recommend a nice pair of earplugs?
But while we need to give kids a pass, adults need to stop the childish behavior. Everything you need to know about surviving a flight, you probably learned in kindergarten. Use common sense. Think about others. Share. Flying isn’t going to get any easier. I know what my mom would say: “Now, Chris, be nice.”
Christopher Elliott serves as resident consumer advocate and ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler, and writes the “Insider” column for the magazine.


Kayli said...

Oh gosh- I too am super nervous for our flight. Like, so SOOOO nervous. I mean, I have a 4-month old baby who screams a LOT at home, where we can try to make him as comfortable as possible. I also have a rambunctious (normal?) 2-year-old boy and 4-year-old boy. And 3 other children (who won't be as difficult, I'm hoping). But still. Baby- 2-year-old- 4-year-old??? It's going to be hell. But I'm not thinking about it.

AngelaW said...

As an airplane pro, and with quite a bit of kid flying experience, here are my tips: Before you leave, you need to set up some seats and talk though the "rules". With your two little kids especially. Here are my rules for the littles (this is for kids over 2, under two-pray and hope for the best). No kicking the seat in front of you, no putting down your own tray table, and no playing with the window. I dont let them take off their seatbelts, which they seem to be fine with, since they cant take off their seatbelts in the car; this keeps them from climbing all over the seats and such. I tell them there are rules about when it is safe to have the tray table down, so they know I am not just being mean. I also explain the electronic device rules -and we practice. My kids listen for the "ding", and the pilot announcement. Then then ask for the device. We have talked about the laws and rules, so they know it is not my option to provide it earlier. The bathroom talk is also really good, because needing to go potty right now, is not an option if you are taking off, landing, or in turbulence. I am obsessive to ask kids to go to the bathroom before we board. Other than that, distraction is key- toys, treats, movies, games, whiteboards, etc. Also, I am a no recline flyer, unless you are flying overseas or over night. After I explained everything to the boys, they did really well. I may have also told them about the under cover police men on the airplanes. :)

AngelaW said...

One more thing, if you are traveling over night, and kids will not sleep on the plane, I do believe a small dose of benedryl is fine. I even cleared it with my pediatrician when my kids were little babies. The stress of screaming and getting off schedule is no fun for anyone.

Kayli said...

You've probably read this or other things just like it, but just in case you haven't, here's a link to an article I thought was useful about flying:


There are a lot of comments with good tips. (And lots with lame tips too. :) )

emily ballard said...

Thanks for all of the great tips!

Rebecca said...

Someone once told me that they planned a different activity for every 15 minutes on the plane for their toddler.