What’s gotten into airplane passengers lately? In 2019, the Federal Aviation Administration investigated 146 cases of bad behavior; in 2021 it initiated investigations into 1,081 incidents, out of a total of 5,981 reports of unruly passengers last year.
“Somehow when people get to the airport these days, they’ve forgotten everything their mother taught them,” says Lydia Ramsey, an etiquette expert based in Savannah, Georgia. She describes taking a recent flight where, during boarding, “a woman came charging up and literally pushed me out of the way so that she could get on. I don’t understand it. It just makes it difficult for everybody else.”
The first rule of respectful travel is to accept the rules: Observe mask mandates, boarding processes and carry-on restrictions. Beyond that, there are steps you can take to make travel a little more pleasant for everyone and avoid conflict. Ramsey and Jacqueline Whitmore, a former flight attendant and the founder of the Protocol School of Palm Beach in Florida, offer their guidance.
1. Be prepared.
This is especially true at airport security. “You know you’re going to have to take your shoes and your jacket off,” says Ramsey. “So don’t wait till you put your bag on the belt before you start doing those things and hold everybody up.”
2. Greet the flight attendants.
When you’re getting on the flight, acknowledge the flight attendants. Speak to them, smile at them — even with a mask on, people can still see a smile in your eyes,” Ramsey suggests, noting how tough these jobs have been lately.
3. Don’t hog the overhead bins.
“I’ve noticed that some people as soon as they see a space, shove their bag in as quickly as they can and hope they’re not going to get caught, even if they’re at the back of the plane,” says Ramsey. “You need to put your bag over your own seat.” And don’t shove coats and extra bags up there, either, she adds.
4. Be sensitive to your seatmate.
“Acknowledge this person with a greeting as you’re starting off and then you can read the other person to see whether they want to talk or not,” Ramsey suggests. “But most people really want to find some peace and quiet. If the other person is chatty, politely excuse yourself. That’s the time to bring out your book or put your headphones on and just say, ‘Excuse me, I’m going to read my book now.’”
5. Give the middle passenger a break.
Let that person in the middle seat have the armrests. “That’s really the only thing that middle person has,” says Whitmore. “They don’t have the view or the access to the aisle.”
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6. Don’t bring stinky food on board.
Sometimes people bring on the smelliest, most awful things with them,” says Ramsey. “I think people should try to stay away from anything that’s going to have a strong odor.”
7. Think before you recline.
It can be uncomfortable to sit straight up on the airplane, Whitmore notes. “But you also need to be mindful of how your behavior affects other people. You shouldn’t keep your seat reclined during mealtime, for instance. And if someone behind you is trying to do some work on their laptop and asks you to move the seat up a little bit, then try your best to comply.”
8. Control the kids.
Traveling with young companions? “Make sure they’re not bothering other passengers, like kicking the seat in front of them,” says Ramsey. “That will really get the ire of the person in front of you.”
9. Watch the alcohol.
Because drinking lowers inhibitions, it can fuel conflict. Be aware that you aren’t allowed to consume alcohol you bring aboard, and that airline staff are prohibited from allowing onboard anyone who appears to be intoxicated.
10. Don’t escalate a conflict.
If another passenger is behaving badly, don’t get in an argument, etiquette pros (and airline officials) advise. In most cases, you should notify a flight attendant and follow the directions of airline staff.
Christina Ianzito is the travel and books editor for aarp.org and AARP The Magazine, and also edits and writes health, entertainment and other stories for aarp.org. She received a 2020 Lowell Thomas Award for travel writing.