Flight Etiquette: What to Do and Not Do on an Airplane

By Jake SchroederLast Updated Apr 18, 2020 9:21:26 PM ET
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We all know that person: the one who seems to forget all about manners and social etiquette on an airplane. Flying is already stressful. You really don't want to be that person.

Between the long security lines, potential delays, heavy luggage and congested gates, finally making it to the plane can feel like quite an accomplishment. However, your fellow passengers just went through the same stressful ordeal, and tempers are short. To ensure the flight is a pleasant experience, don’t forget about flight etiquette. Here’s what to do and not do on an airplane.

Offer to Change Seats to Accommodate Families

Most people have specific seat preferences. Some are window-seat people, while others prefer the aisle, for example. Even on very large planes, most people try to avoid the middle seats. When booking your flight, you probably chose the seat you did for a reason, so it can be tempting to say no if you're asked to switch seats with someone.

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Photo Courtesy: Daniel Frese/Pexels

Unfortunately, airlines sometimes separate family members, even when they’re booked under the same reservation, for various reasons. If you find yourself the lone wolf between people traveling together (especially children and their parents), it's polite to offer up your seat to allow them to sit together. You would want someone to do the same for you if you were flying with family or friends.

Use Headphones

If you plan on playing music, videos or games on your electronic devices, be sure to use your headphones. You can take your own, purchase a pair at the airport or use the headphones offered on the plane. Remind your children to use them as well.

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Keeping small children entertained on a plane can be quite frustrating. Video games offer a perfect solution for distracting many kids. However, you don’t want their game time to turn into a disturbance for everyone else around you. Also, if you're someone who likes playing music or movies at high volume, be mindful of whether those seated next to you can still hear it beyond the headphones.

Don't Lean or Pull on Other People's Seats

If you’ve ever been sitting comfortably when suddenly your seat gets yanked back by someone who's getting up from the seat behind you, you know it’s an incredibly irritating feeling. Your armrests are there for a reason. Use them to boost yourself out of the seat..

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Of course, accidents happen. If you're walking down the aisle to use the bathroom, and the plane hits some turbulence, it's only natural to grab the nearest seat to steady yourself. If this happens, simply apologize. Similarly, if you're standing in the aisle waiting to sit down or leave the plane, resist the urge to lean against the side of the seat next to you as you wait.

Sit in Your Correct Seat

Again, most people have seat preferences on airplanes. Unfortunately, you don't always get to choose your seat, or the seats you like might have been booked. That doesn't mean it's okay to snag the seat you want, just because you got there first. If you think the other passenger won’t notice, you’re wrong.

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If the plane has already taken off and it's clear no one is occupying the seat you want, then ask a flight attendant if it's okay to move. Another option would be to wait until the person assigned to the seat arrives and ask whether they would mind switching.

Don't Automatically Recline

Once you're in the air and you're given the okay to move around the cabin, your first instinct might be to recline your seat. However, just because you can recline it doesn't mean you should — at least, not without taking a few precautions first.

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It's polite to check who is seated behind you and give them a head's up if you plan to recline. They may already have limited room for a number of reasons. Additionally, remember that when you recline, the person's tray table in front of them moves as well. They may have beverages or a laptop sitting on it that could fall.

Don't Crowd the Gate While Waiting to Board

Your plane is finally boarding, and you're eager to get out of the airport and on your way to your destination. You want to get on the plane as quickly as possible, especially if you need to use the overhead storage space near your seat. However, many airlines board passengers according to specific zones.

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While waiting for your zone to board, avoid crowding the gate. Stand back until it's time for your section to line up. When too many people crowd the gate, it only delays the boarding process. The plane isn't going to leave without you, and your bag will make it on the plane either way.

Don't Go to the Bathroom Without Shoes On

People have different opinions about whether or not it's okay to take your shoes off on an airplane. On the one hand, you want to be as comfortable as possible, and taking off your shoes on a long flight shouldn’t be a problem as long as you wear socks or slippers and don’t put your feet up. On the other hand, many people think it's gross and shouldn't be allowed.

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One thing everyone should be able to agree on is that it's not appropriate to go to the bathroom without your shoes on. Aside from whether it makes other people feel uncomfortable, it's just gross and unhygienic.

Don't Use Your Cell Phone When You Shouldn't

Most people consider their mobile devices to be extensions of themselves at this point. They are glued to them for everything from texting and email to social media and music. However, it's important for safety reasons to keep your phone in airplane mode during take-off and landing. Only turn on your WiFi when the pilot gives the okay. Ignoring these rules could cause significant problems.

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When you’re allowed to use your phone, make sure you're mindful of those around you. For example, if you're flight is delayed or you just landed and need to call a loved one, keep your voice at an acceptable volume.

Take Your Trash with You

Flight attendants typically walk down the aisles at least twice during a flight to collect trash. In some cases, you aren’t done with your beverage or snacks yet. That's fine as long as you remember to take your trash with you when you deboard the plane. This includes any newspapers or magazines you brought to read, even if you don't want to keep them.

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Flight attendants usually only have a limited amount of time to clean the plane between flights. You can help make their job much easier by cleaning up after yourself. Trash barrels are scattered throughout airports, so disposing of your garbage will be quick and easy after landing.

Say “Please” and “Thank You”

As with anyone who works in the service industry, flight attendants spend a large portion of their time at work catering to the needs and requests of others. Often, people on planes are rude and angry, especially when their flight was delayed. They are often in a rush and preoccupied with their own business, which can cause them to be dismissive and distracted, even if it’s not intentional.

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Taking a moment to simply smile and use basic manners to say "please" and "thank you" can go a long way. When you're asking for a snack or beverage is an obvious time to express your appreciation, but it's also polite to thank them again when you're deboarding the plane.

Understand That Flight Attendants Don’t Control Delays

No one is excited when a flight gets delayed. In many cases, passengers get angry and take it out on the gate clerks or flight attendants. It's important to remember that flight delays are completely out of their hands. In fact, flight attendants probably want the flight to remain on schedule even more than you do. They're only considered "clocked in" once the plane takes off, and the end of their shift get delayed with every flight delay.

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Keep this in mind when you find yourself growing annoyed at an unexpected delay. Passengers who remain calm and understanding are a wonderful change from the norm, and you could even end up with some perks (like a free drink!).

Be Mindful of Armrest Space

Airlines maximize every inch of planes, leaving little room for passengers to stretch out and get comfy. One area that can be a bit contentious is the armrest zone. When you're seated, it’s almost second nature to rest your elbows on the armrests next to you. In some cases, it's possible to share an armrest. Other times, however, you may need to suck it up and keep your hands in your lap.

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It’s important to assess the situation and make sure you're not being an armrest hog. If you notice the person next to you looks a bit cramped, offer them the armrest. You could also take turns.

Respect the Seatbelt Light

Airplanes have seatbelt lights for a reason. It's important to respect the directive when the pilot turns on the light. Generally, it's because they expect turbulence, and they want you to be safe. Disregarding the light can be dangerous. If you’re unbuckled when turbulence occurs, you could fall and hurt yourself or another passenger.

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The seatbelt light may also be turned on because the flight attendants need the aisles cleared for a certain reason. If you ignore it, you are interfering with their ability to do their job. Of course, in emergency situations, they can usually make an exception. For example, if you really need to use the bathroom and simply can’t wait, let a flight attendant know.

Check Your Bags When Necessary

People often want to avoid checking their bags so they don't have to spend time waiting around at baggage claim. Others try to avoid checking bags because some airlines charge outrageous fees for each checked bag.

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Of course, you want to get out of the airport quickly and avoid ridiculous fees, but if your carryon is especially large and heavy and will be a nightmare to get in and out of the overhead bin, it's better to check it. This is especially helpful on crowded flights when the staff asks for volunteers for passengers to check their bags.

Be Mindful of the Food You Take on Board

Airplane snacks aren’t always enough to keep you going on longer flights. If you're running late and don't have time to eat your food before boarding, it's not against the rules to carry it onto the airplane. However, it's courteous to only board with food that is relatively odorless. For example, whipping out a tuna fish sandwich could earn you some nasty looks from those around you.

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Other smelly foods to avoid include most fast foods. They may taste delicious, but they don’t usually emit the best smells to the people around you. Airplanes are incredibly confined spaces, and smells sometimes seem magnified on planes. The last thing you want is for your meal to literally make someone else nauseous.

Ask for a Seat Change If Necessary

As mentioned, sometimes you get assigned to a seat you don’t like. If that's the case and your flight isn't full, it's okay to ask a flight attendant to move. However, it's important that you ask and don't take it upon yourself to move.

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If you have a fear of flying, for example, or you get incredibly nauseous on planes, inform a flight attendant. They might be able to move you to a more comfortable seat for your needs. For example, turbulence tends to be worse in the back of the plane, so they may move you to the front to avoid airsickness. They may also have another passenger they're trying to accommodate who wouldn't mind switching with you.

Don't Put Your Feet Up on the Armrest

There are very few ways to stretch out and get comfortable on a plane. In your attempt to do whatever you can to relax, be sure your actions aren’t invading other people's personal space. The person seated in front of you paid for their seat. They don't want your feet on it.

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This includes propping your foot up on their armrest or on the armrest between the two seats in front of you. Also, avoid putting your feet on the back of the chair. Although you may think you're being gentle, the person seated in front of you can feel it and is probably annoyed.

Be Wise About Using Overhead Space

There's a limited amount of overhead space on airplanes. It’s helpful if you do your part to make sure you’re making efficient use of it. You should definitely place large carryon items in the overhead bins, but keep your personal items, such as purses and backpacks, with you in your lap or stored under the seat in front of you.

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Even if you aren't going to need them during the flight, storing them in the overhead compartments takes up more room than necessary, leaving less space for other passengers to use for large items. This mostly applies to full flights, of course.

Keep Calm About Children

If you’re not flying with children, it's important to understand that crying babies and screaming toddlers may be annoying, but it’s something people have little control over. The parents are likely doing everything they can to soothe the child and are probably more embarrassed than you are annoyed.

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On the flip side, if you’re flying with children, do make an effort to keep them calm and quiet at all times. Soothing a crying baby or a hyper toddler isn't easy. However, apologizing to those around you and making sure you’re keeping your children's behavior in check — no letting them kick the seat in front of you or run down the aisle — can go a long way.

Converse with Courtesy

It's polite to at least greet and make a few minutes of small talk with your seatmates. However, always try to read social cues to determine whether the person minds talking to you. For example, if they are working on their laptop, reading a book or have their headphones in, they probably want to be left alone.

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If you’re chatting on the plane, with either your seatmates or your friends and family, be mindful how loudly you're speaking. With everyone in such close quarters, it's important to remember that what usually qualifies as normal speaking volume may be somewhat disruptive to those nearby on a plane.

Be Polite About Pets

Most people love dogs, and if you get to travel with your furry friend who acts as an emotional support dog for your flight anxiety, that’s great. However, it's important to keep in mind that not everyone around you on the flight will feel the same way about your four-legged friend.

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Before taking your dog out of the carrier to put on your lap, ask the people seated around you if they mind. Chances are they will be understanding about the request, but asking first is the polite thing to do.

Practice Patience

At the end of the day, every person on board your flight would probably rather be somewhere else. Airplanes only offer so much room, so it's helpful to remember that everyone around you is in the same boat, so to speak.

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Remembering to practice a little patience can help you stay calm during otherwise frustrating moments. Letting your frustration get the best of you won't benefit you or the people around you. Whether you're delayed, waiting to deboard or trying to drown out the whines of an unruly child nearby, try to breathe and remember it won't last forever.

Give the Middle Seat Both Armrests

As discussed above, being mindful of how much armrest space you're occupying is an important part of plane etiquette. This is particularly crucial when you're on an airplane that includes rows with three seats.

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It's polite for the window and aisle-seat passengers to let the middle person have both armrests. People in window seats can lean against the side of the plane — and enjoy the view — and the aisle person has another armrest and the ability to get in and out of their seat without disturbing anyone. The least you can do is give the middle person the armrests for some stability.

Don't Try to Be the First One Off the Plane

It has been a long flight in a cramped space, and everyone is ready to deboard. However, trying to push past people or get out of your row before it's your turn won't make the process any smoother or pleasant for anyone. If you're in a rush or are worried about making a connecting flight, let people know.

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Perhaps tell a flight attendant before you land, so they can assist you in getting off the plane as quickly as possible. Otherwise, it's best to remain in your seat until it's your turn to get up. Also, avoid crowding the aisles and retrieving your baggage from overhead until it's time for you to move.

Be Careful Storing and Retrieving Luggage from the Overhead Bin

When you're getting on or off the plane, be mindful of your surroundings when retrieving or storing your carryon. You don't want to accidentally hit someone in the head with your suitcase because you used a little too much force pulling it out.

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If you need assistance getting your bag in or out of the compartment, ask another passenger or a flight attendant. People are usually much happier to offer assistance than they are to catch an elbow to the eye. Also, remember that bags may move around during the flight. When you land, open the overhead bin slowly to make sure nothing comes tumbling out.

Don't Linger in the Aisles

Most people want to board and deboard the plane as quickly as possible. However, standing up and waiting in the aisles won't make the process go any faster. You may be eager to get up and retrieve your bag, but if everyone tries to do that at once, it's unproductive.

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Also, after boarding the plane and stowing your carryon, you may need to get something you forgot from the bag before sitting in your seat. Try to do this as quickly as possible — ideally once everyone is already seated. You don't want to hold up a line because you're blocking the aisle trying to find your headphones.

Be Cautious of the Cabin Crew When Getting Up

If you need to use the bathroom on a flight, it's best to do so either before or after the flight crew serves food and drinks. The aisles are extremely narrow, so trying to squeeze your way past them isn't feasible. If necessary (and possible), go to the bathroom at the opposite end of the plane from where they are serving beverages, even if it’s farther away.

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Try to avoid pushing the call attendant button when they are in the middle of serving. There are a lot of passengers to take care of in a timely manner, so it's best to avoid interrupting them for anything other than a real emergency.

Wear Layers

Flights can be tricky when it comes to temperature control. One second you might be sweating, and the next you're shivering. The only thing you control is the tiny air fan above your seat — and what you're wearing, of course.

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To ensure you're as comfortable as possible throughout the flight, it's best to wear layers or travel with a lap blanket. You can easily remove a zip-up hoodie or blanket if you get too hot and then bundle up again if you get cold. It’s definitely better than asking the passenger next to you to turn off the air.

Don't Drink Too Much

Flying makes many people nervous, and enjoying a cocktail on the flight can sometimes help ease those nerves. Additionally, some airplane passengers are on vacation or celebrating a special event. Whatever the situation, consuming alcohol on a flight is certainly okay, but it's important to drink in moderation.

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Due to the altitude, the alcohol may affect you more intensely than it usually does. The last thing you want is to be the loud, obnoxious passenger who is cut off or — Gasp! — removed from the plane. Plus, the more liquid you consume, the more bathroom breaks you'll have to take, which can cause unnecessary disruptions.

Exercise Window Manners

Some passengers enjoy looking out the window during takeoff, while others prefer the window to be closed. If you're sitting in a window seat, you have the opportunity to decide if the window shade is open or closed during the flight. The polite thing to do is ask the passenger(s) next to you if they have a preference.

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If a person is trying to sleep and the sun rays are beaming on their face, it would be considerate to close it. Keeping the shade up can also disturb people working on laptops if the sun is glaring off their screens. It's all about assessing the situation and using your best judgment.