After 21 years as a flight attendant, I’ve seen it all. The pandemic heightened tensions on board, with the most extreme incidents of bad passenger behavior escalating to violence. More commonly, though, I see discourteous behavior lead to verbal disagreements, or a general unpleasantness.
As we enter the busy summer season, it’s worth discussing some of the common courtesies that could make flying, dare I say, pleasant.
Here are my airline etiquette rules, which aim to strike a balance between your own reasonable comforts and thoughtfulness to those around you.
Everyone has the right to recline — but there’s a polite way to do it.
The wrong way is slamming back the seat as hard and fast as you can. That has broken laptops, spilled drinks and caused fistfights that have caused flights to be diverted. Be aware of your surroundings. Before reclining, peek behind you and see what the situation is, and nicely ask if that person minds.
Clean up after your kids.
We are not maids. Flight attendants do not have access to vacuums, brooms or cleaning supplies that go beyond hand soap, wet wipes and air freshener. You are not required to clean up, but it’s courteous. There are knock-on effects, too: Messes in the aisle can be a safety hazard, and a big cleaning job can even delay the next flight. Proactive thinking helps. Can a small child handle a large bag of snacks? If not, put them in a smaller, more manageable container ahead of time.
The overhead bins aren’t your personal Tetris game.
The bins are first-come, first-serve in economy class. You don’t own the spot directly above your seat, and it’s not acceptable to take out someone else’s bag to make yours fit. Sliding bags to maximize space is fine, but save the complex puzzle solving for the flight attendant. And remember, small bags belong at your feet, keeping room for large bags in the overhead bins.
No one wants to hear your FaceTime conversation.
We don’t need to hear both sides of that conversation; plus, boarding an airplane is not the time for your goodbyes. It’s time for you to concentrate on finding your seat and stowing your bags as fast as possible so the people behind you can do the same thing. While we are on the topic, no one wants to hear your movies, video games or TikToks, so bring headphones. Even for children.
The middle seat gets both armrests.
It’s the consolation prize for being squished between two people with nowhere to lean. Case closed.
Headphones are a perfectly acceptable conversation ender.
Overly chatty seatmate? Headphones are a great way to keep from being the sounding board for your neighbor who can’t take a hint. It’s my go-to move: After a long day of being a flight attendant, my noise-canceling headphones are my haven. I want peace on my commute home.
Keep your socks on.
If it’s a long flight, by all means relax and take off your shoes, but there is never a reason to take off your socks. Foot smell is inescapable. Also, keep your feet to yourself. It is not acceptable to rest your feet on the armrest of the person in front. And I highly recommend putting your footwear back on to use the lavatory.
Use the call button wisely.
If you need something — a coffee refill, assistance with a medical issue or help with a disruptive passenger — please use it. It is preferable to poking or tapping the flight attendant, which is not OK. Before you press it, though, make sure we aren’t already in the aisle with a beverage cart or a trash bag — that means we’re already coming! If you are having a true emergency, please hit it several times so we know it’s important.
Don’t discipline other people’s kids.
Nothing makes a flight more miserable than the back of your seat becoming a punching bag. However, if a child behind you is being disruptive, address the parents. You don’t have the right to yell at someone else’s child. A nice way to approach this is to ask the parents calmly, and with a smile, if they realize their child is kicking your seat. Then say it’s bothersome; is there any way you can you make the child stop? This way you are not accusing in your tone, and are asking instead of being bossy.
Deal with your seating issues before you get on the plane.
If your family is split up on the flight, the chaotic rush of boarding is not when flight attendants can solve it for you. The gate agents have access to the seating chart and family reservations, so please ask them first if it is possible to change your seats. Some airlines even have a policy that families with children under 13 must sit together, so the gate agent is the best place. Or even better: Call the airline before coming to the airport.
You don’t have to switch seats if someone asks you.
I’m going to be unpopular here. No, you do not have to switch with someone who asks you. If you have paid extra for your seat, or even if it is just an inconvenience, you can kindly say no. If it is advantageous, like trading a middle seat for a window seat, or you are happy to help, please go ahead and swap.
This should be common sense, but somehow it isn’t. I deal with this all day, every day. I do not want to flush your deposit, and neither does the passenger after you. If you can’t find the button, please look for it: I guarantee it’s there. On every airplane.