In-Flight Etiquette: How to Be a Better Passenger

U.S. News & World Report

In-Flight Etiquette: How to Be a Better Passenger

You're on a plane. It's a crowded flight, and you're in the middle seat. The woman in the window seat is fast asleep, snoring and steadily collapsing into your space. The kid in the aisle seat wearing the big headphones is bobbing his head to music that everyone in rows eight through 13 can hear. But at least it's drowning out the squawks of the fidgeting toddler across the aisle. You figure you'll just take a nap. You try stretch out in your seat, but you soon realize the passenger behind you is using a new gadget that prevents your seat from reclining. What now?

Flying can be tense, and shrinking seat sizes don't help. In fact, research suggests that crowded flights can lead to a breakdown of normal social functioning among passengers. But flying doesn't need to bring out the worst in you.

To make your next flight more pleasant for you and everyone on board, U.S. News got some flying tips from Pattie Adams, a former Pan Am and United Airlines flight attendant with 33 years of experience.

When boarding the plane, store your luggage in the compartment nearest your seat. Be aware of others behind you in the aisle and try to avoid blocking the influx of fellow passengers while stowing luggage.

Also, refrain from bringing overweight bags. It's tempting to cram everything in your carry-on to dodge checked-baggage fees, but keep in mind that you're responsible for hoisting your bag into the overhead bin, not the flight attendant. According to Adams, most airlines prohibit flight attendants from handling passengers' luggage in an effort to prevent workplace injuries and avoid liability. Pack light enough that you can handle it yourself.

The middle seat is arguably the worst seat. The passenger in the window seat can rest his or her head on the window, and the person in the aisle seat can lean into the aisle for extra room. But the traveler in the middle seat is stuck with the least amount of space. Consider ceding the inner arm rests to the person in the middle seat next time you fly, as Adams, and most of the experts asked in this Wall Street Journal survey, would do.

"Most parents are really good with their kids," Adams said. But, she's seen some nightmare situations: children pulling passengers' hair, running down aisles, kicking and screaming. The best defense against any potentially disruptive behavior? Packing lots of activities.

"They should bring toys, games, videogames — different things to entertain their children," Adams said, further noting that airlines don't provide toys or books for children as some did in the past, so the onus is on the parents.

Also, make sure to keep an eye on your child's belongings to make sure they don't spill over into the aisle or on the person next to you.

As for dealing with other's people's kids, if someone else's child is bothering you, Adams advised calmly consulting a flight attendant before trying to handle the situation yourself. Whatever the issue, resist making a scene. And, perhaps above all else, don't let your children continually kick the seats in front of them.

Given the close quarters of flights, avoid flip-flops and keep your shoes on at all times. When preparing for a flight make sure to wear deodorant, but be mindful not to go overboard on the cologne or perfume. (Also, if you're debating about wearing shorts versus pants, consider the pants.)

Bringing outside food on planes is fine. "The options are so limited with in-flight dining that you pretty much have to do it," Adams said. Just make sure what you bring isn't smelly (maybe canned tuna isn't the best idea).

For everyone's benefit, get rid of trash when appropriate — just don't thrust dirty trash over your neighbor and get them dirty in the process.

If you're playing a game, watching a movie or listening to music, try to remember that headphones can become miniature speakers if played too loudly. It's a simple rule, but it's easy to forget.

Chatting at a reasonable volume is fine on planes. But keep in mind the passenger next to you is a captive audience with little to no escape short of the emergency door. Make sure the person next to you is really interested in talking. If the person is wearing headphones or reading, chances are this person simply wants to keep to himself.

If you find yourself next to a passenger who is being too chatty, apologize and say that you have some reading to do, or that you're tired and need a nap. And when cellphone service is available, resist the urge to make long phone calls unless it's absolutely necessary.

This is an increasingly tricky problem. The Knee Defender — a new product that prevent seats from reclining — has caused much debate and at least one flight diversion this year. Is it OK to use this seat-jamming product?

On one hand, plane seats were engineered to recline. On the other, leg room has decreased as airlines seek to maximize profit by adding seats. So, it's understandable if passengers feel cramped. Instead of investing in a Knee Defender, consider these less aggressive options: Look before you recline — is the person behind you a child or a 6-foot-5 ex-basketball player? If not, simply ask the person if he or she minds if you recline.

Adams said the close quarters of modern commercial flights pushes people's buttons, and reclining seats can lead to altercations — she's even seen some become physical. "I don't know what the solution is, but it's not to buy a Knee Defender."

Treat exiting a plane like waiting in line, and only cut in front of people if their turn comes and they're clearly not ready to exit. Even if you've heard the seatbelt and emergency exit spiel thousands of times, pay attention to the announcements to see if any time-crunched passengers with connections need to exit first.

In-flight etiquette doesn't need to be complicated. When trying to decide if a certain behavior is acceptable on a plane, ask yourself this simple question: Would I be OK with everyone else on the plane choosing to behave in the same way?

And remember to extend the same courtesy to the individuals helping to keep the in-flight peace. "Be nice to your flight attendants — that goes a long way," Adams said. "They can be your best friends, or your worst enemies if you're going to be really rude."  

About the author: Stephen Johnson is an intern for the Travel section at U.S. News. You can email him at

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