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Airline Travel Etiquette

Updated on October 11, 2010

Airline seats are among the most uncomfortable places on earth. A study done for the railroad industry in the 1950’s came up with the conclusion that the minimum width needed for a seat should be 18 inches – and that was before the obesity epidemic. Coach seats on most airlines barely clear 17 inches. Contrary to popular belief, seats have not gotten smaller in recent years but tell that to someone stuck in a middle seat, usually between two men who play offensive line for the Chicago Bears.  There is little enough territory for the torso let alone elbows.  Frequent travelers have come up with some ‘Un-Written Rules’ for airline travel.  Here are just a few:

Armrest usage: The basic rule is that the middle seat gets both armrests. The window or aisle seat passengers have one armrest to themselves and no one on the other side so they can lean away from the middle seat passenger. One caveat: when the controls for the in-flight TV system are on top of the armrest or the armrest opens and you pull out the tray table you have to let your neighbor have access.

Armrest up: I had a very large person ask me to stand up so she could get into the middle seat - when I got up she flipped up both armrests and sat down.  Both myself and the person in the window seat asked her if we could return the armrests to the down position.  She laughed and said "Ha - You can try!"   If you are too big for one seat, please don't take over part of your neighbor's seat as well.  Either squeeze in or buy two seats. 

Leg Room: “Seat Pitch” is how airlines measure the distance between seats and unlike seat width, it actually has been going down in recent years to fit more seats on the plane. Even short people have trouble fitting their legs in the space in front of them so many tend to spread their legs out for extra space. The rule on this is that you can spread your legs out as long as you do not invade the space in front of the seat next to you. Unless you are sitting next to a very attractive person, and chances are they are in first class, rubbing legs with a total stranger on an airplane is no one’s idea of a comfortable flight.

Cell phones: As soon as most flights land, people take out their cell phones, raise them to their ears while placing their elbow into the ear of their neighbor, press some buttons and say the same thing as everyone else on the plane. “Hi, it’s me … I’m here … no I’m still on the plane … a little bumpy … I’ll call you when I get to ---”. Unless you have an organ for transplant on ice in your carry-on, there is no reason why you can’t wait till you are off the plane.

Sleeping: If you like to nap on the airplane, be courteous to your fellow passengers and use either the little wings on the headrest or get one of those neck pillows to keep your head from ending up on your neighbor’s shoulder. This is particularly important if you drool in your sleep.

Getting out of your seat: When the pilot announces that “you are now free to move about the cabin” it is not compulsory. On short flights, try and use the bathroom before getting on the plane, on long flights when you should get out of your seat, avoid doing just when the flight attendant has just served drinks.

Eating: Since most flights don’t serve food any more, lots of people pick up food in the airport and carry on. When you’re selecting your meal for the flight, try and consider the small space you will have and your neighbors who will be inches away from you (if that) while you eat. Big meals with lots of spices and aromas will not only offend others but probably make you uncomfortable in that tight seat after you eat it.

Electronic devices: Watching a movie, catching up on email, reading your eBook, or just listening to your iPod are a few things you can do to make the flight time go faster. Use a good set of headphones and keep the volume at a setting that will let you hear without sharing the experience with everyone else in the plane. Don’t watch movies or shows with a lot of adult material – kids in the aisle behind you might be watching too. And about that confidential email you are typing, they guy in the next seat just pointed out that you misspelled “confidential”.

Luggage: If it doesn’t fit in under the seat in front of you, don’t make it an obstacle on the floor. You won’t have room for your feet and if you or your neighbor has to exit the aisle, it will get stepped on. Don’t be one of those people who take everything you own onto the plane. If you can’t pack light check your bags – eventually, they will start charging for carryon luggage too.

Personal Hygiene: I know that some cultures believe you can’t trust anyone that you can’t smell but having to smell someone at really close range for hours can be overbearing. Wear clean clothes, brush your teeth, use deodorant, and throw out the idea that there is no such thing as too much cologne.


 With a little courtesy we can make airline travel more tolerable for everyone.


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    • Ace So Awesome profile image

      Ace So Awesome 5 years ago

      Very nice and to the point! Hopefully the passengers that we travel with in the near future will heed this thoughtful advice.

    • PegCole17 profile image

      Peg Cole 6 years ago from Dallas, Texas

      I'm with K9Keystrokes on linking to your hub. It's really quite funny to those of us who've been there many times.

      "Getting out of your seat" - You can always tell when someone next to you is about to go to the blue room by the way they keep jerking their head toward the rear of the plane. Kidneys must be connected to the head bone.

    • K9keystrokes profile image

      India Arnold 6 years ago from Northern, California

      I like this hub a lot. It has direct information with a nudge of humor here and there; just my type. Hope you don't mind, but I am linking to it. Nice work here.


    • andygrant profile image

      andygrant 7 years ago

      Very nice hub! These airline travel etiquette must be followed while traveling.