After many years of frequent air travel, I've built up my personal list of air travel etiquette. Additions and comments welcome!
- Before you lean back in your chair, please look behind you. If the person is sleeping, go ahead. If they are working with a laptop, or eating on the tray, do not lean back all the way. Go just half way or 1/3. When you lean back, it makes it impossible for the person behind you to have enough room to see their laptop screen at a usable viewing angle.
- If you do lean back - do it slowly! To get maximum viewing angle on my screen, I will typically put the top of my laptop screen flush against the seat in front of me, often nudged in just below the release lever for the tray. If the person in front of me leans back suddenly, this puts pressure on my laptop screen and may damage it. Lean back slowly so the person behind you has time to react!
- Only lean back if you intend to sleep or there is no one behind you. Remember, when you lean back, you are taking space away from the person behind you. Don't take if you don't need.
- If you do lean back, please do not constantly adjust yourself or your seat position. As you lean back or forward, the position of your seat shifts, and thus impacts the person behind you. The person behind you will suffer from bouncing and shifting of their tray, and variation in the amount of space they have available to them. Comfort for people behind you is obtained when the amount of space they have is maximized and the variation in that space is minmized. Please, sit still and keep a constant wait on the back of your seat to avoid thee shifts.
- If there is a car seat in the seat behind you holding a kid - never lean back.
The Middle Seat
- Whomever sits in the middle seat gets to put their arms on the armrests. The people in the aisle and window seats have their own bits of "extra space" - the person in the aisle seat can lean into the aisle a bit or put their elbows out; the person in the window seat can lean against the wall more. The person in the middle row is crunched and the only extra space they can get is the armrests. It belongs to them.
- When the middle seat is unoccupied, the free space becomes a shared, reusable resource, and gets split 50/50 between the person in the aisle seat and the person in the window seat. Either person can put down the laptop tray in the middle and claim one half of the space of that tray, as well as one half of the space of the seat itself. I typically use my half of the tray for coffee and food, so my own tray table can be used for my laptop and mouse. The space underneath the middle seat is for one party or the other, on a first come, first served basis.
- If you see an empty seat and want to move into it, the following rules apply:
- The seat change should not decrease the comfort level for the people in the area you want to move into. So for example, if you are currently in a middle seat, and want to move into a middle seat in a different row, but the aisle and window seats in your target row are taken, your move will decrease the comfort level for the people in the row you want to move to (and increase it in the row you are moving from). Consequently you should not make this move, nor should you ask the people in the target row if it is OK. Just stay where you are. Following similar logic, you can move into a target seat under the following cases: (1) The target row has no one seated in it, in which case you may take any seat. (2) The target row has someone in the aisle, and no one in the window or middle. You may take the window seat. (3) The target row has someone in the window seat, and no one in the aisle or middle. You may take the aisle seat.
- You make the move just after the door on the plane closes, and before takeoff. Don't defer your move until halfway through the flight, because moving in general annoys people as they get settled in. You'll have to go fast because the flight attendants don't generally like people moving around.
- Don't move your bags from the overhead, just take the stuff you had with you. Again, this is to avoid hustle and bustle and last minute shuffling of stuff.
The Window Shade
- For morning and day flights, the window shade should stay down. This is to make sure the outside sun doesn't come in and cause glare on laptop screens and monitors. It is the job of the person in the window seat to close this shade.
- The person in the window shade may keep it open during landing and takeoff to observe the procedure. If it was closed initially, please check to make sure no one is sleeping next to you before you open it. If you are in a mostly dark airplane interior (because everyone elses shade is closed), opening it can let in a glare of light that can awaken the people in your row.
- If you need to get out of your seat to go to the restroom, and you are in a middle or window seat, you should turn to the other people and politely say, "Excuse me I need to get out". Before you do this, you should have packed up enough of your stuff that you can move once the other folks are ready. For example, if you had your laptop open on your tray, close the laptop, put it away, and close your tray table before asking.
- The other people in the row should get out of their seats (exception in first class where there is enough room to exit without them getting up) to let the person out.
- If you need to get out and one of the people in the row is sleeping, try and "schedule" this event. Don't wait till you urgently need to use the restroom. Keep an eye on the person who is sleeping, and if it looks like they wake, then go ahead. Give yourself about half an hour for this. If they do not wake, you gently tap them on the shoulder, and say, "Excuse me, I hate to wake you, but I need to get out".
- The exit process is the following. Person in the aisle exits first (naturally), and steps towards the front of the plane two steps, so that the middle person can get out and also step forward (typically restrooms are in the rear of the plane). Middle person comes next, goes into the aisle, steps forward towards the front of the plane. Now the window person can get out and use the restroom.
- For people that have stepped out, there are two possible next-steps while they wait for the return. They can go back to their seats, remain in the aisle for a standing break, or take this opportunity to also go to the restroom. The person in the middle seat makes this call. If they remain standing, the person in the aisle seat should also remain standing and not complain. If the person in the middle seat returns to their seat, the person in the aisle seat can make an independent choice on whether to return to their seat or wait in the aisle or go to the restroom. Once the person who went to the restroom in the innermost seat comes back, the exit and return process repeats.
- When you get out to let someone else go to the restroom, clear any blockages you left on the floor (e.g., your shoes or a bag) so that the person get out without needing to step over your stuff.
- When getting out, it is frequently necessary to hold on to something to balance. You have two options - the seats in front of you, or the armrests of the seats in your row (the latter requiring you to turn around when exiting). The latter is recommended - it avoids pulling on the seats in front of you, which will bounce the people in front of you and decrease their comfort. If you turn around and lean forward slightly using the armrests to balance, you avoid touching the backs of the chairs in front of you which is nicer.
- When walking through the aisle, do NOT put your hands on the aisle seats as if you were mountain climbing up the aisle. Do not bump the seats with your shoulders or arms. The best way to move is to basically walk sideways. Move carefully so you are not moving those seats. Jostling them can wake sleeping passengers and in general decrease their comfort.
- When there is turbulence, you are responsible for making sure your drink doesn't spill. You should either pick up your drink and hold it carefully to compensate for the turbulence, or put your hand over the top to prevent spill. If the drink is mostly empty and you are confident there will be no spills - you can leave it be but be careful it doesn't slide away.
- Be quick, even if no one was waiting behind you. Don't bring reading materials.
- Throw away your paper towels.
- You should use a seat protector. If you do, make sure it is completely flushed and some shreds of it haven't ripped off and landed on the floor.
- When using the sink, don't get water on the floor. Be careful to keep it in the sink.
- Flush (really hope this is obvious).
- Dont bother wiping down the sink. I know the instructions say to do this, but I feel its a waste of water and as long as the sink is just wet (as opposed to having soap on the sides of the sink), who cares. Sinks are wet normally.
- Aim for guys really, really matters. If you miss and - ahem - get some on the toilet or floor, please wet a paper towel and wipe it up, then dry the floor and toilet area with a dry paper towel. The restroom is not cleaned during the flight. Its really gross to go to the bathroom and the floor is wet, and of course you dont know whether its water or not. If you enter the bathroom with a dry, clean floor, exit it with the same! Remember people on planes often remove their shoes and definitely no one wants to go into a bathroom with a wet floor wearing socks.
- The default position of the armrests is lowered. If you want them raised, you must ask the person next to you if it is OK. If they say yes, then proceed.
Lights and Air
- You have complete autonomy over the controls for your light and your air vent. However, you may not adjust the direction of the airflow in a way that blows on the people next to you.
- You do not have the right to tell the people in your row to turn on or off their air, or turn on or off their overhead lights.
Getting on the Plane
- Seriously - once you've found your row, if the aisle is unoccupied, move yourself into that row and pull your bags with you, so that people can pass. The stuff that is meant to go under your seat, put that on the aisle row seat. Then, put your overhead stuff up top, all while mostly standing in front of the aisle row seat. This rule applies even if you need to put your bags into an overhead bin that is NOT your row. Move into the aisle seat area, put your bags up, then move on.
- Respect families and kids. As a frequent business traveler you get into this rush-rush mentality and will want to go first and lose patience with folks moving slowly. Let families with kids go first and give them time to do what they need to do.
- If you are in the window or middle seat, and arrive to your seat before there are folks there yet, go ahead and sit of course - but don't buckle your belt, don't lean back, don't open your tray table. Be in a position to move immediately to get out so the other person can get in.
- Never wedge your laptop screen into the seat in front of you, because the person in front of you probably hasn't read this. (credit: Scott Brim)