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A guide to flight etiquette

Attitude at altitude ... Long flights can bring out the worst in some people.

Attitude at altitude ... Long flights can bring out the worst in some people. Photo: iStock

Take 300 people, most of them strangers to one another. Jam them into limited space for 10 to 12 hours, during which they have to sit side-by-side. Thin out the air to make everyone a bit more tired and tetchy. Add some stress and fatigue.

It could be the recipe for a new reality TV program, but this show is played live over 100,000 times a day at airports around the world.

All too often it seems that travellers don't pack social graces in their carry-on luggage. 

Little wonder that there's enough pent-up tension simmering among travellers to make the average Big Brother household look like a happy hippie commune.

Don't get me wrong – it's not as if hundreds of passengers are about to go postal on their seatmates.

But all too often it seems that travellers don't pack social graces in their carry-on luggage.

Is it simply that tolerance levels decrease because we're stressed, sometimes rushed, cramped, tired, hungry and bored?

Or do cheap tickets and the rise of the 'cashed-up bogan' equate to travellers who bring to the airplane the same self-centred habits and lack of civility that they'd exhibit on the ground?

(While these observations apply mainly to economy, where legroom and privacy are at a minimum, business class can have its own share of cashed-up bogans and the Don't You Know Who I Am brigade.)

Whatever the reason, the results are the same. The act of reclining your seat becomes a turf war over personal space. Subtle (and not-so-subtle) maneuvering for the armrest. iPods with the volume wound up to 11. And kids? Don't get me started on the annoying in-flight antics of kids!

Most of this is stems from personal attitude rather than altitude.

I like to think that frequent flyers are the exception. We're well-organised, we know how to travel with a minimum of fuss for ourselves and others.

Our take is that because we're all stuck together in this tin can for the next 10 hours, let's try to make it work out with a smile instead of a snarl.

It can also be said that airlines are party to this, bringing out the worst in passengers by squeezing more people onto each flight and cutting back on in-flight amenities.

Even little touches help keep things humming along. Even notice how, on a Qantas international flight, the mood in the economy cabin skyrockets when the flight attendants hand out those Weiss ice-cream bars and cups of hot chocolate?

But airlines could do more to promote flight etiquette. Maybe an announcement, following the pre-flight safety demo, suggesting that "as we'll all be together for the next eight hours, please be considerate of your fellow travellers when reclining your seat and playing music over your headphones."

Airlines could also offer some specific in-flight etiquette suggestions in an email with your itinerary or on your e-ticket.

Until that happens, here are a few starters.

Hey DJ!

Flight etiquette begins on the ground, in the airport lounge.

Using your laptop to watch a video, play some music, make a Skype call or keep Junior entertained with his or her favourite Wiggles videos – with the sound blasting through your laptop's speaker?

Let me tell you about this amazing new invention called 'headphones' which you can even use in the plane.

Bag-swingers and bag-stuffers

Passengers who hoist carry-on bags over their shoulder rather than holding it in front of them risk giving a black eye to travellers who are already seated.

And bloated hand luggage that's bursting at the seams and needs a shot-putter to wedge it into overhead bins? Give me a break. There's a reason why carry-on baggage is limited and bins are not TARDIS-like portals to infinite space.

Second bag smarts

Worse still are passengers who bounce up and down to fetch items from their carry-on bag. It's better for you and your seatmates if you bring a second, much smaller bag – one that can be stowed under the seat in front of you – with everything you'll need during the flight.

Blokes should consider a compact messenger-style satchel that can hold an iPad, noise-cancelling headphones, a small set of in-flight toiletries, your travel wallet and such.

Rules for reclining

This is the flashpoint for in-flight aggravation.

(Airlines have tried to overcome this with seats which are mounted in a fixed shell, such as Cathay Pacific's international economy seat. But they often fail in ergonomics – hence why Cathay is rolling out a new economy seat with a proper recline.)

I'm a firm believer that you don't need to ask permission to recline your seat – you paid for that right when you bought your ticket.

At the same time, you have every right to the personal space which the seat ahead of you will be reclining into.

So there's a middle ground where manners and consideration are needed.

Before you hit the recline button, check if the person behind you is using a laptop and needs to adjust their screen or extend the tray table.

You don't have to ask them if you can recline your seat, but it doesn't hurt to let them know that you're going to recline it "a bit" to get some sleep.

Then do it slowly, or even just halfway.

Armrest warfare

If you're in a two-seater, the armrest should be there to share. If your seatmate insists on hogging it then you need to either put up with it or reclaim your own slice of turf when they take a toilet break.

But where there's a middle seat, frequent flyers generally accept that the person in the middle should get both armrests because they don't have the side space of either a window or aisle to gently lean into.

What's your experience with flight etiquette and what suggestions do you have to make flying a little more enjoyable for everyone?

David Flynn is a business travel expert and editor of Australian Business Traveller.

Twitter: @AusBT

136 comments so far

  • A big YES to my right to recline a seat. Of course its nice to check with the person behind you, and I always smile gently and say "I'm just going to recline my seat bit recline a bit and try to get some shut-eye" or something like that, and the very fact that you ask makes a big difference.

    And will people please learn to use the armrests of a seat to boost themselves up into standing position, instead of grabbing the seat in front and lazily hauling themselves up?

    Date and time
    April 04, 2012, 11:28AM
    • Jackson - you're obviously not a tall person. I physically can't lever myself up from out of a seat using only the armrests! My centre of gravity is much higher than that!

      Date and time
      April 04, 2012, 11:37AM
    • agree totally. I fly weekly and in Oz fly economy for short trips. The worst legs are to Gold Coast. Family of 4-5 all with enough carry on to support a small army and just thrown sideways all over the locker. Seat reclining is bad but worse is pulling up by the seat in front and those people (adults too) who think that kicking the seat in front is a remedy for DVT. And too true about businessmen who sling luggage all over their shoulder and smack your head as they go passed.

      Date and time
      April 05, 2012, 5:13AM
    • In the profit-maximising, seating configuration of modern aircraft , if the person in front has reclined their seat, it is difficult if not impossible to stand up without using that seat for support.

      Holly Farr-Carnelle
      Date and time
      April 05, 2012, 6:53AM
    • How do you get out of a chair at home?

      Date and time
      April 05, 2012, 7:58AM
    • Shelly - I'm 6'6" and I can stand up from a seat without help. My tip to you, do some leg and core exercises. Centre of gravity indeed!

      Big Les
      Date and time
      April 05, 2012, 8:03AM
    • @Glen, there are some seats that do not recline the ones infront of the galley. I know as I ws stuck in one Sydney-LA - very uncomfortable.

      Just for Fun
      Date and time
      April 05, 2012, 8:57AM
    • Sure but you should also accept that if the person behind you is tall and your seat is digging into their knees and they ask you to put it back up again that you do so quickly and with good grace. You don't have a right to cause someone else physical pain or discomfort beyond the proximity of your back rest and their face.

      Date and time
      April 05, 2012, 8:59AM
    • I'm 6'5'. If the person in front is reclining I can't exit my seat without bumping theirs. I don't need to use their seat to get up, but i do need to brush past it to actually leave my seat or stand in any semblance of straightness.

      Reclining your seat in Economy is the height of rudeness - unless it's a night flight and you need to sleep. During the day it is almost unforgivable. I would never do it during the day.

      Economy tickets only buy you the right to recline your seat in the way that free speech gives you the right to be rude to people as long as you don't vilify them.

      Date and time
      April 05, 2012, 9:11AM
    • I fly economy and premium economy very frequently and i find it the height of rudeness when people lever themselves out of their seat using my back rest. The first time it happens they get a polite warning, if they do it when I'm asleep and wake me then they get a verbal blast. I am 6ft4" and if I can make the effort to be civil to my fellow passengers and get out of my seat without disturbing them anyone can.
      Whilst I'm on, I've stopped getting exit row seats because of the number of times a fellow passenger has done their in flight yoga routine and landed a wake up kick during their downward dog.
      There should be a global air passengers etiquette charter.

      Date and time
      April 12, 2012, 12:38PM

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