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The Friendliest Ways to Fly the Friendly Skies

Even before they began dragging passengers off planes like roadkill, domestic air travel had become an experience to be endured rather than enjoyed. The seats are getting smaller, the delays are getting longer and the bathrooms are disappearing.

Then there are the passengers — the brawlers, the sprawlers, the drunks, the barefooters, the toenail clippers, the manspreaders, the she-spreaders, the chatty Cathys, the inattentive parents, the PDA-ers, the gym rats, and moreand more drunks.

“Bad behavior — on both the passengers and airlines’ part — is documented all over YouTube today,” says Leigh Masterson, a veteran Delta flight attendant who asked that we change her name for this story. “Air travel today is so extremely stressful. If we could all practice common courtesies — and extend each other grace — it would be a better flight for everyone.”

To that end, I asked Masterson; Timothy Roscoe, a fundraiser and public relations executive who’s taken hundreds of flights in recent years; and Daniel Post Senning, Emily Post’s great-great grandson who last told us how to behave at a BBQ to offer advice on managing ourselves while flying the friendly skies.

What’s the number one faux pas people commit while flying?
Masterson:
Cell phones. I really wish passengers would hang up before they board. It’s fine to text — or even to make a quick emergency call if you need to before we close the door — but so many people continue their personal and business calls throughout the entire boarding process. They’re loud and inconsiderate to everyone around them.

Roscoe: It bums me out to see people dressed down at the airport. No matter how much you fly, if you’re about to board a plane, it’s a special occasion. You’re about to represent the place you’re coming from to the place you’re going to. I think that merits a sport coat.

Does the person in the middle seat get the armrests?
Post Senning:
I like to give that middle seat a little bit of deference. They have less room to wiggle than people on either end. You also need to take into account the reality of different body shapes and sizes. Seats are getting smaller and smaller. I’m all of 5-foot-8 and 135 pounds. So even if technically that’s my real estate, I often don’t get it if I’m sitting next to someone who’s bigger than me. But if everything else were equal, I like to afford that person in the middle a little bit more room.

Is it ever okay to recline? Or on the flip side: Is it always okay to recline?
Post Senning:
I think it’s about rights and responsibilities. It’s your airline-given right to recline your seat after takeoff when the airline personnel says it’s okay to do so. That said, I think there’s a courtesy to not recline your seat if you’re on a short flight when most people aren’t reclining their seats — or when the person sitting behind me is eating a meal or using their laptop. I generally, though, tend to fall into the kind Midwesterner category and avoid reclining.

Roscoe: Reclining is a small comfort for air passengers, and it helps give business travelers the illusion that they’re getting actual rest. You’ll hear sighs from time to time — someone behind you who is now dissatisfied because their whole sweet setup has been altered by two inches. These people shouldn’t travel in public. The instant cabin crew announces seatbacks should be up, however, it’s not okay to delay.

Masterson: The chair is designed to recline, so recline. Be aware that some chairs may recline more than they’re supposed to. If you find you’re in one of those, be courteous enough not to lie all the way back.

If you do recline, should you look back and give the person behind you a heads up first?
Post Senning:
If the person behind you is eating or trying to work, I try to give them the space to do so. But it doesn’t need to be a negotiation. You can get yourself into some trouble because it’s a little like asking someone if it’s okay if you step on their foot.

Masterson: It isn’t necessary, but it’s a great idea. It will likely feel less invasive, and give them a chance to move their drink or move back if they happen to be leaning forward.

Roscoe: I haven’t asked permission, but, come to think of it, I should.

The person sitting next to you has breath that smells awful. Is there anything you can do?
Post Senning:
Very little. That’s when I like to remind people that you don’t ever want to be that person. Practice basic standards of good hygiene. Avoid eating really smelly food. Have a travel toothbrush.

Roscoe: If they have severe bad breath they probably know it, so if you think offering them gum or a mint mid-flight is a kind gesture, you’re not a kind person. I carry Vicks VapoRub in my dopp kit, and there’s been a time or two when I’ve ducked into the men’s room to blot some under my nose for this purpose.

How much is too much in terms of the drink cart?
Post Senning:
Know your limits. Altitude amplifies alcohol. Like scuba diving, they say, “Plan your dive, and dive your plan.” The same is true of drinking on a plane.

Roscoe: If you can no longer pick up social cues about whether the person next to you is available for a conversation, you’ve had a few too many. Anything going on above the shoulders of the person next to you — they’re facing the window; they’re looking at a screen; they’re wearing earbuds; their eyes are shut — can indicate they’re not into chatting. If you really want to respect your seatmate’s space, you’ve got to be sharp enough to interpret these body language semiotics.

Masterson: This varies from person to person, but please keep in mind that one drink in the air is the equivalent to three on the ground. When you mix it with medication, which has become very common, you’re asking for trouble. I don’t know if it’s nerves or the free booze (at least on international first class and in Domestic economy comfort), but many passengers start with doubles right away and want to keep that pace. Either way, if a flight attendant tells you to slow down or cuts you off, don’t argue. It’s not my life’s mission to separate you from your liquor, I promise.

You’ve been making small talk with the person seated next to you for a while. Is it rude to ignore them once the plane takes off?
Post Senning:
You can do your best to not engage them in further conversation by asking for privacy or excusing yourself from a conversation. Generally speaking, you’re not expected to engage or talk to the person sitting next to you.

Roscoe: Flights have these transitional moments — e.g., takeoff and the point at which it’s okay to use electronics, etc. — that make it easy to switch into different modes. That said, it’s always rude to just ignore someone. If they don’t get the hint, and you don’t have anything pressing to get done, it’s time to strap in and take one for humanity. They need someone to talk to and you’re it.

Masterson: That’s what headphones are for!

Is it ever okay to take your shoes off?
Post Senning:
My personal worst scenario is smelling someone’s feet. I know that people’s feet swell when they fly and the temptation to kick their shoes off is great. But for good hygiene and the sake of people around you, keep your shoes on.

Roscoe: Flying cross country and overseas, it’s definitely okay — so long as you don’t have some foot odor problem.

Masterson: If you’re in your seat and want to be comfortable, it’s okay to pull your shoes off. (But please at least have socks on.) However, if you find yourself getting up for any reason, put your shoes back on. I see passengers go to the bathroom all the time in socked — and sometimes bare — feet. That’s so disgusting and unsanitary. And while we’re on the subject of feet, please keep them off the bulkhead walls and the seat in front of you.

If you need to vomit, is it okay to use the motion-sickness bag in the seat back or should you go to the bathroom?
Post Senning:
If you can get to the bathroom, go to the bathroom. That bag is there for emergency situations when you can’t make it there. It’s not like peeing in a bottle because you don’t want to pull over. Vomiting is best done in the lavatory of the plane. But sometimes it comes on fast, and it’s all someone can do to reach for that bag.

Roscoe: I’ve flown so often that by now I’ve been on two or three flights with turbulence so violent that death seemed like the only logical thing to happen next. People screaming, overhead compartments popping open, oxygen masks falling, the whole bit. And yet, I’ve never once seen anyone vomit into a motion sickness bag.

Masterson: If you feel like you’re getting sick and want some privacy, head to the lavatory. If it’s during critical phases of flight, like takeoff or landing — or if there’s turbulence — use the airsick bag at your seat. And please don’t hesitate to let the flight crew know if you aren’t feeling well. We really do care and may be able to offer wet napkins, ice, ginger ale or at least a bigger bag. It’s horrible to feel sick in the air. We feel for you!

If you’re in the aisle seat and you need to reach across the person in the middle seat (e.g., to hand a drink to the person in the window seat) is that okay?
Post Senning:
Magic words are magic. “Pardon me” and “excuse me” go a long way. Use thoughtful judgment. If you’re in the window seat, try to minimize the number of times you get up because it’s an imposition on the other people there.

Roscoe: If it’s something that’s in the service of another person, and the person in the middle is, for whatever reason, not with it enough to pass it down the row, then yeah, sure.

Masterson: I sure hope so. I’m constantly reaching over the entire row. If that’s not okay, let me know.

What about watching R-rated material on your computer, or an the in-flight entertainment provided by the airline?
Post Senning:
You want to be careful about that. Though I’m often amazed by what the airline makes available to watch. They’ll edit out the airplane crash scene in World War Z, but include other content that’s either racy or violent. The one I had to check myself on was a movie called the The Mysteries of Pittsburgh that had some pretty graphic sex scenes that kind of snuck up on me. I self-censored and turned it off.

Roscoe: If it’s rated R for sexual content or violence and you’re unsure of how much others can hear coming from your headset, watch it another time.

How about sexual content IRL in the form of public displays of affection on a plane?
Post Senning:
It’s close quarters. Use a slightly higher standard for discretion than you typically would.

Roscoe: The same as they would be in a church or a courtroom. There are children and people of all different beliefs and cultures on planes. Let the excitement be in the anticipation of reaching your final private destination.

Masterson: A little cuddling and a brief kiss on the lips is fine. A full make-out session is not.

When someone asks you to give up your seat to keep a family together, is it asshole-ish to decline?
Post Senning:
If there’s a good reason for it, it’s best to help out. Try to be aware and courteous about it, especially with regard to keeping families together. But it’s never an obligation to give up your seat. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes and make the judgement call accordingly. But I don’t give up my window seat just because little Johnny likes to look out the window.

Roscoe: Yes. You can be a gentleman or you can be someone who puts their own comfort above all other things. You can’t be both. I think air travel magnifies this binary.

Masterson: You absolutely have the right to decline, especially if you’re in an aisle and they’re asking you to move to a middle seat. Usually someone will help accommodate the request eventually. I always remember those passengers with a big thank-you and maybe a free drink.