✈️Airplane etiquette: Dos and don’ts for passengers

How to be a polite passenger, defuse conflicts if and when they arise

Crowded planes, tight seats, long delays, rude passengers—all of these conspire to make flying more trying than ever. What to do about it? Sometimes a little common courtesy is in order. But sometimes you need to know how to manage situations that run the risk of becoming a serious conflict. Here, an essential guide to read before your next flight.

The New Airplane Etiquette

Don’t Start an Armrest War: The protocol, says Diane Gottsman, an etiquette expert and owner of The Protocol School of Texas, is that the person in the middle seat has access to both armrests because they’re in the least comfortable seat. If they’re not using them, ask whether you can use the one nearest you.

Recline With Care: ”Yes, the seat has a recline button. Your car has a steering wheel, but that doesn’t mean you use it to run into other people,” says Gottsman. Before you use that button, look backward, make sure it is not inconveniencing someone who might be very tall or who has a mobility issue, or whose tray is down. “Don’t recline if it’s obvious you’d be inconveniencing someone and it’s a short flight,” she says. Plan ahead by avoiding restrictive clothing, she suggests, so even in tight quarters you’ll be comfortable. Otherwise, be courteous, and say, “Would you mind if I recline?”

Avoid Smelly (and Potentially Dangerous) Food: If you bring food like tuna fish onboard, don’t expect everyone to welcome you with open arms, says Gottsman. Steer clear of pungent foods, as well as foods that commonly cause allergic reactions, like tree nuts or peanuts.

Keep Sharing to a Minimum: ”You can’t be best friends with someone on a two-hour flight,” says Gottsman. “I sat next to someone recently who shared way too much about their kidney disease and asked a lot of personal questions,” she says. “To shut that down, say, ‘You’re going to have to excuse me—I’m going to put my earbuds in and nap.’”

And Keep Your Shoes On: Dress in a way that is respectful of other passengers, Gottsman says. “If you would sleep in it at night, don’t wear it on a plane.” And wear your most comfy, but closed-toe, shoes.

5 Sticky Situations and How to Solve Them

A Passenger Asks You to Switch Seats: It’s OK to say no, says travel writer Benet Wilson, except perhaps when a parent needs to sit with a small child. In other situations, you could politely say something like, “I’m terribly sorry, but I need to sleep on this flight and chose a window seat for that reason.” However, if you are being asked to swap an equal seat, say an aisle seat for one that’s one row back, it’s probably nice to agree.

You’re Seated Near a Crying Baby: ”You have to keep in mind that the child is likely experiencing some problem, maybe ear pain or fear,” Gottsman says. “You can ask the flight attendant if there is a quieter seat available, but there are probably people all around you asking the same thing.” This is another situation, she says, where noise-canceling headphones can come in handy.

You’re Allergic to Your Seatmate’s Dog: ”Once a woman behind me had taken her dog out of its case and the animal was hitting my leg,” Wilson says. Wilson explained that she was allergic, and the woman, indignantly, put the dog back in its case. “I try not to drag the flight attendant into small stuff. I try to politely handle it myself,” she says.

You’re Near an Angry Passenger: ”If someone is being so aggressive that you start to feel concerned or overwhelmed, then call the flight attendant,” says Gottsman. “They are trained to handle aggressive passengers, and they can make decisions you can’t make on that plane—like having someone removed if necessary.”

You’re in a Seat Repeatedly Kicked by a Child: Gottsman suggests you take a breath, and in a pleasant tone turn around and say, “I know your toddler is young, but he is kicking my seat. Would you mind helping me with that?” Wilson has an additional suggestion: “I tell the parent one trick that I learned when I was traveling with my child is to take their shoes off. They don’t like to kick in their socks.”