Airplane Etiquette

Air Travel in the 21st Century

Until the early 1970s, air travel was an elegant affair: Flight attendants looked like fashion models; travelers dressed in their “Sunday best”; and airlines catered to passengers’ every need—from complimentary souvenirs to martinis with two olives and one pearl onion. Back then, airplane food—even in economy class—tasted like “real” food. And a first-class passenger could request to have his filet mignon prepared medium-rare. But those days are long gone, partly due to fierce competition from budget carriers and post-September 11, 2001 regulations, but more so to an across-the-board “casualization” of “things.” Today, air travel is simply another form of mass transportation, getting anyone and everyone from Point A to Point B, no perquisites attached. And unlike the 1960s, when it was still regarded as fashionable to travel with ten pieces of matching luggage (which would of course necessitate the securing of a porter or two), the smart passenger today travels with one carry-on bag and one checked-bag (into which he places all the items he is no longer legally allowed to place in his carry-on). And with the proliferation of wheeled luggage and airport terminal pushcarts, porters, too, have almost become a thing of the past. A gentleman, therefore, must be ever aware of people in need of assistance in airports, which have become increasingly large, more difficult to navigate, and less accommodating of “non-compliant” passengers.

In order to avoid exorbitant overweight charges on checked-bags, many passengers pack their carry-ons—which are typically not weighed—with utmost efficiency, forcing as many items as humanly possible into those bags. And many women and the elderly, oftentimes to their surprise, are incapable of placing their heavy carry-on bags into the overhead compartments of most commercial airplanes. Gentlemen, therefore, should be on the lookout to assist.  “Would you like some help with your bag, ma’am?” or “Let me help you with your bag, sir” is usually sufficient to generate an enthusiastic “Yes, please!” of “Thank you so much! You are so kind!”

It is not necessary to have any conversation with row-mates on an airplane—as it is not necessary on buses or on trains. It is considered polite and in good taste, however, to exchange at least basic greetings. And if conversation ensues, then so be it. Many people are wary—and for good reason—of engaging conversation with seatmates for fear of unwittingly becoming the captured audience of a person who lacks social sensitivities—as in the case of people who think it appropriate to engage a row-mate in conversation from take-off to touch-down. In such instances, at an appropriate juncture in the conversation, a polite, “It has been a pleasure speaking with you. I’ll now do some reading. Enjoy the rest of the flight,” should be sufficient to gracefully end an unwanted or imposing conversation.

Anyone who has ever endured a transatlantic flight in coach class knows that occupying the aisle seat (“to have more leg room”) oftentimes results in more “leg-stretching” than one bargains for on account of the seemingly countless interruptions by row-mates as they must take trips to the lavatory, get up to take medication, or rummage through the recesses of their carry-ons in pursuit of earphones so as to avoid paying the fee for a new pair. The best way to avoid such distractions is to request a window seat.

Upon arrival, it is polite for a gentleman to extend parting courtesies to his row-mates, and he should again be sure to offer assistance to anyone in his immediate vicinity in need of removing heavy bags from the overhead compartments.

Additional Courtesies:

-It is impolite for a gentleman to hold onto the back of an occupied seat directly in front of his when rising from his seat; doing so disturbs the occupant. (Instead, a gentleman should raise himself from his seat by bracing himself on the armrests adjacent to his seat).

-When using the control screen situated at the back of the preceding passenger’s seat, a gentleman should gently select his choices, being sure not to disturb the occupant of the preceding seat with overly aggressive or frequent depressions of the panel.

-When passenger-seats in the economy/tourist cabin are all occupied, fully reclined seats are typically uncomfortable for anyone sitting behind the reclined seats–unless all persons decide to simultaneously fully recline their seats, which is almost never the case. Though each person has a right to recline his seat to the degree desired/possible, a gentleman should always turn to the person behind and ask his/her indulgence/permission to recline. “Excuse me, sir, would you mind if I recline my seat?” is usually sufficient and always appreciated.

-As a courtesy to the passenger sitting behind, a gentleman’s seatback should be brought to its full, upright position when meals are being served:  A person who eats–as he should–with his seatback in its upright position will be subjected to cramped quarters if the seatback of the preceding passenger is simultaneously fully reclined during meal service.

-A gentleman should indicate or express no frustration or discomfort when sitting next to a mother with a crying child.


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