Plane Etiquette 101

Flying can feel like torture.

The bone-dry cabin air is recycled. Spaces are ridiculously cramped. Passengers don’t always have ready access to food, water, and restrooms. It’s a fight waiting to happen—and happen it does.

Flash points include seat territory disputes, scuffles over luggage space, and arguments about unruly kids. The reluctant referees are flight attendants who are part waiters, part playground monitors, part sentinels against potential terrorism.

Here’s how to short-circuit five common midair melees:

Right-to-recliners: The average economy-class seat offers little legroom — the “pitch” between seats is around 28 to 34 inches — but when the guy in front of you reclines his seat as far as it goes, you’re wedged in. Airlines created this problem by squeezing an extra row or two of seats on a plane, but it’s up to passengers to solve it. Not the easiest thing, it turns out.

On one side, you have those who think because they paid for the seat, they should be able to use it any way they want. On the other are folks who believe the seat should never be reclined, but simmer in resentment when the person in front does. You could jam the seat in front with a device like the controversial Knee Defender (frowned on by the FAA, though no airline I know of has banned it), which is all but guaranteed to start a rumble.

The real solution is understanding that the space must be shared. Ask before leaning into it. Or, spend extra for a premium economy seat, which comes with a little more legroom. Another option: Ask to be seated in an exit row.

Armrest wars: The tight squeeze in economy class comes from all sides. With only 17 inches of space per seat, plus whatever you can negotiate on the armrests, many passengers find themselves packed in like wheat in a shock.

I recall the case of Arthur Berkowitz, who on a flight from Anchorage to Philadelphia was seated next to a passenger “of size,” whose girth “required both armrests to be raised up and allowed for his body to cover half of my seat.” Berkowitz stood for most of the trip, instead. But even when there’s room, who owns the armrests? If you’re seated next to a window or aisle, one of the armrests is yours to do with as you wish. But in the middle seat it’s not so simple.

Pushy passengers simply claim the space as if it’s a landgrab, defending it against your elbow incursions with occasional “ahems” and glares. Don’t become that person. Introduce yourself and smile. If you’ve done that early on, an armrest discussion later won’t be a tinderbox.

Overhead bins: The space above your seat does not belong to you exclusively. Overhead bins are a source of endless conflict, especially now, when passengers max out their carryons in order to avoid paying checked-luggage fees.

The answer is to carry a soft-sided bag, smaller than the maximum size allowed, that will fit, if necessary, in the space under your seat.

What about the rest of your stuff? Check it or ship it ahead.

Scofflaws: It’s true — failure to comply with a crew member’s instructions is a federal crime. Offenses range from minor infractions, like unbuckling a seat belt before the plane has come to a complete stop, to more serious violations such as making a call on your smartphone while the plane is on final approach.

It’s hard to know which rules are there for your safety and which ones are just silly. For example, the rules prohibiting the use of in-flight electronics, which are being reconsidered as I write this, seem oddly inconsistent. Why am I not allowed to use my iPad, but the pilots can use theirs?

More germane to this article, what’s a passenger to do when someone breaks the rules? Tattle? Look the other way? As someone who has been both witness and perpetrator (I’m pretty addicted to my devices), my advice is to let go of the little stuff.

The teen playing Samurai, a graphic video game, next to my five-year-old daughter? Beheading the enemy in front of a kindergartner is uncouth. But instead of making a fuss, I switched seats with my daughter.

OPKs: There’s nothing that sets off the fireworks as much as Other People’s Kids. On a recent flight from Honolulu to Los Angeles, I watched an elderly passenger who had the bad luck of being surrounded by screaming kids, one of them, unfortunately, my daughter, who, he remarked, “acted as if the plane was her personal playground.”

I did not argue. She was behaving that way, and try as I did, couldn’t be persuaded to just sit down and watch the romantic comedy playing on the flickering TV screens five rows away. Next to this hapless man, a newborn wailed. Behind him, a three-year-old with extreme aerophobia clung to her mother, weeping. It was the flight from hell for this poor gentleman. And yeah, for me, too.

OPKs are unfixable. All the responsible parenting in the world can’t make up for boredom or pressure in the ears or a really bad in-flight movie. May I recommend a nice pair of earplugs?

But while we need to give kids a pass, adults need to stop the childish behavior. Everything you need to know about surviving a flight, you probably learned in kindergarten. Use common sense. Think about others. Share. Flying isn’t going to get any easier. I know what my mom would say: “Now, Chris, be nice.”

Christopher Elliott serves as resident consumer advocate and ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler, and writes the “Insider” column for the magazine.