Last week I wrote a column about some of the annoying people you can encounter when you travel by air. More than 1,000 people e-mailed me in response, and there was a common theme: Whatever happened to common courtesy?
It seems many air travelers are totally oblivious to even the basics of in-flight etiquette. Quicker than you could say “Please don’t recline your seat into my lap,” I had a list of the dozen worst infractions. Here they are, along with a refresher course in how to behave when you are six miles high in the sky.
1. How to recline your seat back
Some passengers mistake their airplane seat for Old Dad’s ancient recliner. They press the button on the armrest, and then slam the seat back with enough force to send drinks and laptops flying into the lap of the passenger behind them. When that passenger is on the tall side, the maneuver is sometimes accompanied by the sound of cracking knees. All this commotion is unnecessary. The unwritten rule is to make a “looking behind you” motion and then recline slowly, giving the person behind you time to react.
2. Where to stow your carry-on
When boarding, some passengers put their carry-on bag in the first available overhead bin — never mind that their seat is in the back of the airplane. This forces the passenger who does sit up front to cram his carry-on in the tiny space at his feet. Unwritten rule: Stow your bag in the general vicinity of your seat. But there’s a wrinkle: Don’t insist that the overhead bin directly above your seat is yours. Many people like to stow their bag in the bin in front of them so they can keep an eye on it. That is both sensible and fair.
3. What to wear on an airplane
Air travel has become more casual in recent years, and so has the attire. While more casual clothes are more comfortable, passengers sometimes go too far. I consider myself fairly liberal, but do I really need to be reading “Squeeze My Juicy Melons” on the front of a busty female’s T-shirt? And then, when I do, is it fair to glare at me for noticing the fruit? Unwritten rule: Dress as if your parents were along for the trip.
4. What to do about the armrest
Too many people play “King of the Armrest.” In this game, you claim the armrest by putting your arm on it first; when you relinquish it — even for a second — your seat neighbor claims it with one deft move. Maybe it’s because the seats are getting smaller that people feel so compelled to defend the little space they have left. Here’s the unwritten rule: The passengers in the window seat and aisle seat each get one armrest, but the poor squashed soul in the middle seat gets access to both.
5. How to display your affection in public
Now, there’s the romantic kiss, and then there is the virtual face lick. I agree that the world needs more affection, but if your amorous actions are making your seat partners queasy, the unwritten rule is: “Get a room!”
6. What to do about the kids
Being a parent is a wonderful thing, and being a responsible parent is a blessing — especially to everyone around you on an airplane. Faced with the challenge of controlling youthful enthusiasm in a confined space — sometimes for hours on end — too many parents shrug their shoulders or plug in their iPods. Result? The kids run around unattended, kick the seat in front of them, pitch fits, throw peanuts and play their electronic games way too loud. The unwritten rule? Parents have to really try to maintain order. Conversely, if you are not traveling with kids: Have a heart. Sometimes kids just unravel — no matter how hard you try. Besides, you were a kid once, too.
7. When to go to the bathroom
You can’t always control your need to visit the lavatory, but there are times when it’s inconvenient for others to get out of their seat to give you access to the aisle. The drink and meal service is one of those times, especially on a single-aisle aircraft. If you let the flight attendants do their thing and get up before or after, everyone wins. Wasn’t there an old “Seinfeld” episode about this very topic?
8. What to do about the window shade
A lot of travelers on long flights like to close their window shade so they can sleep, but a handful of folks prefer to keep the shade up so they can read, work or just look out the window. It may be annoying to have the full glare of the sun in your eyes when you’re trying to sleep, but nobody should be forced to keep a shade shut for somebody else’s naptime. The real problem is with those who are constantly opening and shutting their window shade. The unwritten rule here is: Make up your mind. People can adjust to your steady light but not to your indecision.
9. How to chat up your neighbor
Nobody likes a Chatty Cathy in flight, especially a loud one, and especially on a night flight. If your conversation with a willing neighbor goes on for more than 10 minutes, take it to the back of the airplane and finish it there. You could probably use a stretch, and your seat neighbors probably need a rest.
10. How to leave the lavatory
Does this really need saying? Most airplane lavatories are smelly, dirty and germy — how could they not be with so many people using them in so short a time? That doesn’t mean that you have to add to the mess. The unwritten rule is to leave the lavatory as clean as you found it, which means at least wiping out the sink with a paper towel. And those of you with bad aim, wipe it up!
11. How to use your cell phone on an airplane
Nobody wants to hear about your big business deal or your hot date while they’re boarding the plane or taxiing down the runway. Keep your voice down. (Believe me when I tell you: Everyone around you is listening.)
12. How to deal with a seat kicker
Not all seat kickers are children; there are plenty of tall, bored and just plain inconsiderate seat kickers out there, too. There are also those who retaliate for a reclined seat by giving it a good thump from time to time. Unwritten rule: Don’t do it. If you’re the victim, convey your annoyance as nicely as possible; if that doesn’t work, move to a different seat or notify a flight attendant. I once was traveling back from Australia with a 6-year-old who did a nonstop tap dance on the back of my seat while his mother did — nothing. I promised him $10 if he refrained from kicking for the rest of the flight. It worked. His mother was not too pleased with my act of bribery, but desperate times call for desperate measures.
The key to in-flight etiquette — like all etiquette — is to remember that you are not alone. Some consideration for your fellow man is all that you really need to get along. I would say that most of us have that, but we will always remember those who don’t.
James Wysong is a veteran flight attendant who has worked with two major international carriers. James recently released a new book, For more information about James, visit or send him an .