The complete guide to air travel etiquette

feet touched the airplane window
Photo credit: Getty Images

Catherine McGregor writes for The Spin Off

You may not be punching strangers’ seats, but there’s plenty of other behaviour that is guaranteed to make your fellow passengers seethe with rage. Here’s how to travel by plane without making people hate you.

You’ve probably seen the video: a woman leans back in her reclined seat as a man punches the back of her headrest. Punch, punch. Punch, punch. Punch, punch. It’s a hypnotic, horrifying depiction of male rage.

The ensuing ‘debate’ over who was right and who was wrong – the reclining woman or the man literally punching at the back of her head – has an obvious answer, but it’s also highlighted the fraught ethical minefield that is the economy class cabin on a long haul flight. Who gets the armrests?

Can I wear bare feet? Do I have to switch seats just because someone asks nicely?

Below, we answer your most pressing air travel etiquette questions once and for all.

Reclining

The reclining woman/punching man uproar has distorted people’s understanding of what should be a very simple dictum: Recline at night. Sit up during the day. If you find this rule hard to remember, ask yourself: is this a part of the day when I would normally be lolling around like a Roman senator at dinner? If not, sit your arse up straight.

And if someone in front of you does recline and you’d prefer they didn’t, be an adult and ask them politely to give you more room.

One young woman standing on the bed and trying to close overpacked suitcase
Photo credit: Getty Images

Carry-ons

You may only put one carry-on bag in the overhead locker. You must put it in length-ways, not horizontally, and you must use the locker above your seat unless it’s completely full. And if you’re travelling alone and your case is too heavy for you to lift into the locker unaided, you’ve packed too much. Rethink your packing list, spring for checked luggage, or get into a relationship, stat.

Armrests

As a window-seat-sitter, it pains me to say it, but the armrests – yes, both of them – belong to the middle seat. It’s only fair.

feet touched the airplane window
Photo credit: Getty Images

Feet

Socks yes, bare feet no, and if you’re worried even in the slightest that your feet might smell, bring clean socks to change into. Do not slide your feet between the headrests. Do not stick your feet into the aisle. Do not, for the love of god, give your friend a pedicure.

Here I need to make a confession: until the internet told me otherwise, I believed it was fine to wear socks into the bathroom. It’s not, unless you’re OK with using your feet as some kind of ultra-absorbent urine-and-faeces mop. And I shouldn’t have to say it, but you should never, under any circumstances, wear bare feet into a plane toilet. Who raised you?

Hair

Only a truly evil person who knew that scissors can’t be brought into the cabin would ever dare. If you ever encounter a situation like this (and it’s not as uncommon as you might think), the only correct response is to quietly open your tray table, carefully arrange the strands back in place, and close that table up nice and tight. Then sit back and wait.

Window shades

Just because you’re in charge of it doesn’t mean you have the right to lower it during daylight hours. All that wondrous, cloud-refracting, quasi-celestial high-altitude light belongs to everyone in your row, so suck it up and bring an eye mask if you plan to sleep before the sun goes down.

McDonald's logo is seen on the french fries packet in restaurant in Krakow, Poland on February 9 2020. (Photo by Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Photo credit: Getty Images

Food

You may not bring on board hot food of any kind, even if that rule would prevent this gripping story of a teenager, her burgers and a nation-spanning mystery from ever happening at all.

Stop press: My colleague Simon asks, “Is it OK to ask for two meals? Asking for a friend.” Yes, it is OK to ask for a second meal, but only at the end of the meal service when everyone else has been fed. If meal trays have not yet been collected, don’t get out of your seat to go hunting for seconds – use your buzzer to call the attendant.

Switching seats

People for whom you are obliged to give up your seat: elderly people, parents of young children, people who need a new seat because of health reasons.

People for whom you are not obliged to move: honeymooning couples, tall people, people who’ve dreamed all their lives of seeing Manhattan from a plane window (reserve a window seat next time, sucker). Of course, this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t move – you are a good person with a kind heart, after all – just that you don’t need to feel bad about saying no.

Sleeping

You may wake up a sleeping seat-mate if they’re invading your space (nobody should be expected to put up with a stranger’s head on their shoulder), if they’re snoring so loudly you can’t hear the quiet bits in 1917, or if you need to pee. You may not wake them up to let them know the meal trolley is coming by.

Drinking

Do not get lit on a plane. You wouldn’t get drunk and rowdy on the bus or in a coffee queue, two other places where you’re surrounded by stressed-out strangers who just want to block out the world/infuse caffeine into their bloodstream in peace. As on land, so in air. You may think you’re hilarious when drunk but trust me and everyone unlucky enough to be seated near you – you really, really aren’t.

Disembarking

Hey, if you want to pop up like a meerkat sensing danger the moment the seatbelt light is turned off, knock yourself out. Given that it can take anything up to half an hour to disembark an international flight, your behaviour is befuddling but ultimately harmless.

Commercial aircraft cabin with passengers
Photo credit: Getty Images

But no matter how desperate you are to abandon the travelling trash heap in which you’ve been imprisoned for the past 12 hours, you still must respect the Sacred Order of the Airplane Rows.

No rushing down the aisle with your suitcase in hand because you are a Very Important Person.

No tutting behind someone taking an extra 10 seconds to get her bag down. No queue jumping, period. The rare exception is when you are in danger of missing a connecting flight – in which case you may ask politely to go ahead.

As in all things plane etiquette-related, a bit of calm communication can go a long way.

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