The do’s and the don’ts of air travel explained

I didn’t witness the horror, but an unlucky friend did. He looked across the plane’s aisle to see a man pulling dead skin off his foot. He claimed that this went on for hours on the overnight flight. I assumed he was being dramatic — this is a friend who pouts until his first in-flight vodka and tonic arrives. But then he showed me video from his phone, and there was the offender, flicking shards of gray, crusty skin onto the floor.

Thankfully I’ve never been exposed to pedi-peelers, but I have had the pleasure of sitting next to a woman who trimmed her toenails, a man who read Bible passages to me all the way from Nashville to Los Angeles, and countless seat kickers. I’m also certain there is now an FAA mandate that requires a cranky baby be present on every flight, and those babies be seated near me.

Now it seems when people get to the airport, they leave their manners and good judgment at curbside check-in. Just last week, a man displayed his Pinocchio penis tattoo to fellow passengers. He also waved around a sex toy for good measure. He was promptly placed on the TSA No Fly list.


Fleshy Pinocchio was a mild offender compared with Korean Air executive Heather Cho, who reacted in an unladylike manner when her macadamia nuts were served in a bag instead of on a plate earlier this year. The latter-day Veruca Salt (and daughter of Korean Air CEO Cho Yang-ho) later found herself in court for her violent reaction to the breech of macadamia nut decorum.

Then there was young, princely Conrad Hughes Hilton III who called fellow passengers “peasants” and charmed the crew by telling them that “I could get you all fired in five minutes.” He was cuffed after passing out. These are extreme examples compared with what most of us have experienced, but they put us on edge fearing a peekaboo Pinocchio or a surly Hilton may be just seats away.


The brawls, insults, and air rage stories are endless. Reflect a moment on the great Knee Defender fracas of 2014 and it’s clear that what’s missing in air travel, aside from legroom, is etiquette.

“It’s all about manners,” said Shawn Kathleen, a former flight attendant who writes the blog Rants of a Sassy Stew and the wildly successful Passenger Shaming Facebook page. “It’s just being respectful. It’s not just toward others. How about being respectful of yourself?”

I suspect the man who punched an easyJet flight attendant last month, claiming he waited too long for a sandwich, missed this piece of advice.

In many ways the mundane, day-to-day annoyances can be just as unnerving as hurricane-strength air rage. After dealing with my fair share of armrest hogs and seat kickers, I wanted to know how to remedy these everyday situations without losing my cool and turning the cabin into a scene out of “Airport 1975” (or, even worse, “Airport ’77”). I turned to the experts.

A common dilemma for me is the armrest hog. I do everything I can to avoid sitting in the middle seat, but when I’m there, I feel as if I’ve been pinned between a pair of Sumo wrestlers.


“When you have three seats next to each other, the person in the middle seat gets to claim the armrests,” said former flight attendant, author, and etiquette expert Jacqueline Whitmore .

“If the person next to you commandeers your armrest, simply inch your way in by placing just your elbow next to theirs. This should leave plenty of space for your greedy neighbor’s elbow.”

This sounds easier than it is. I’ve danced the elbow tango with many fellow fliers. Rishi Piparaiya, author of the cheeky “Aisle Be Damned: Swaying Hips, Praying Lips and Flying Tips,” divides the armrest into two halves, front and back. If you must share, his advice is to get the back half.

“The 8-inch stretch at the rear, which is perpendicular to the back rest, is the good half,” he said. “Essentially, you can comfortably rest your elbows while you lean against the seatback, which is indeed very nice. The bad half is the front 8 inches, where you need to lean forward if you want to prop your elbows. That is not very comfortable.”

It’s difficult to display any kind of decorum when it comes to economy-class reclining. I’ve shot reckless seat recliners enough dirty looks to pollute the Great Lakes. But, according to experts, there is a gentle etiquette to seat reclining. Somerville-based author and pilot Patrick Smith said he believes that if your seat can recline, you are within your rights to recline — to a point.


“Your right to recline does not preclude you from exercising basic courtesy and politeness,” said Smith, author of “Cockpit Confidential.” “If there’s nobody behind you, recline away. If there is somebody behind you, perhaps ask if he or she minds you coming back an inch or two. If the person is unusually large or tall, then be a good sport and keep your seat upright.”

Smith draws the line at a group he calls “assault recliners.”

“They come hauling back at full speed, spilling your coffee or leaving you but a split second from saving your laptop from the deadly nutcracker that forms between the tray table and the seat back.”

If you recline, do it gingerly. Give the person behind you some kind of warning it’s going to happen. And just a reminder, no Knee Defenders allowed. Until the glorious day when we can use them legally, try to smile sweetly through your bitterness.

Almost equally to be dreaded is the eager-to-chat passenger in the next seat. Over the past decade, the epidemic of unwanted conversation seems to be diminishing. Free on-board entertainment now occupies bored passengers who once depended on the kindness of strangers to occupy their empty hours.

I always board a plane armed with conversation killers: noise-canceling headphones, books, and a laptop filled with episodes of a British zombie show that no one has ever heard of.

It doesn’t always work. When I was seated next to a 91-year-old woman nervous about flying to visit her sister in California, even I, with a heart as dark and cold as a grape Popsicle, couldn’t ignore her need to talk. So I heard about the granddaughter she’s proud of (a lawyer) and the no-goodnik daughter (a musician with a tattooed boyfriend). I shook my head sympathetically and she offered me a Fig Newton.


“You’re on a plane to get work done, so am I,” said etiquette expert Whitmore. “We have to be mindful of our time, and what our agenda is too. Exchange some pleasantries with this person, and then tell them ‘It was really nice talking to you.’ You just have to cut it off the best you can without being offensive. Always travel with your headphones. Even if you don’t have any music playing. Just put them in [your] ears.”

The underlying theme to all this advice is courtesy and patience.

The biggest test of my kindness and whatever sympathy I possess is a crying baby . This is particularly challenging on a red-eye when a little darling starts wailing just as you’re beginning a slow, romantic waltz with Mr. Sandman.

“You have to remember that this is just a baby,” said Dane Steele Green, president and CEO of Steele Luxury Travel. “He has no idea why his ears hurt; you have to have some empathy. It’s not realistic to be angry and wish that airplanes didn’t allow babies on board.”

Whitmore takes the kindness a step further.

“I’ll try to help the mother,” she said. “Sometimes you have a young mother who’s mortified that the baby’s misbehaving. Because I’m a seasoned flier, I’ll often go out back and get some juice for the baby, or see if I have something in my purse that can distract the baby.”

But if you’re faced with a parent who is ignoring a misbehaving child, Whitmore said it’s best to inform the flight attendant. She recalled a recent flight when a fellow passenger asked an attendant to intervene — that way no one looked like the bad guy.

Piparaiya has a slightly more progressive solution for restless babies, and I’ve honestly dreamed of the same solution.

“A little bit of giggle juice in their system and babies will sleep through the flight like, well, babies,” he said. “Brandy works best, whisky or rum is almost as effective, but do avoid tequila shots.”

If you don’t have the means to charter your own plane, make sure you bring those earphones (or earplugs) with you. It will help save some stress when a baby starts getting fussy. What also helps me is taking a minute and reflecting on all the stories my mother told me about what a hellish rapscallion I was as a child.

For me, even worse than a crying Raphaelesque cherub are space invaders and kickers. How many times have you been jammed into an economy seat and felt as if a Rockette was seated behind you rehearsing for her next big Radio City Music Hall production? I’m always afraid to turn around and say something for fear of revenge kicks.

Former flight attendant Kathleen says it’s often best to joke about the situation with the offender. Turn around, mention that you can feel the kicking, but then blame it on the proximity of the seats or how thinly they’re constructed. Let the person know you’re feeling it, but defuse it with humor before you throw a valuable glass of pinot noir at them.

A similar tactic can be used with space invaders. Complain about how the seats are small and legroom is tight. Don’t get nasty, don’t sit and stew in your bitterness for three hours. There’s a chance the offender is clueless about what she’s doing.

“You’re dealing with all types of people,” said Whitmore. “They may not even be aware that their bag is encroaching on your space. Mention it. Say, ‘Do you mind if I push your bag over just a little? Seems like space is getting a little tight these days.’

“It could result in a conversation,” she continued. “It could lead into a love affair, a client relationship. You never know. It’s amazing how far politeness will take you in life.”

I enjoy Whitmore’s optimistic perspective; I’m usually happy if I don’t get an elbow to the ribs and a can of Tab spilled on my copy of “Valley of the Dolls” after making such a request.

The issue of carry-on luggage is one that has vexed me since airlines started charging to check bags. I’ve seen elementary school fire drills more orderly than what plays out when people rush onto planes. Kathleen’s advice is to stop wielding your carry-on as a weapon. The area above your seat is not designated specifically for your luggage. You may need to place it a row or twoaway, but it’s unlikely to be stolen at 35,000 feet.

Smith, the pilot, is particularly vexed by “bin hoggers ,” people who cram their carry-on into the first empty overhead space they see.

“This causes the forward bins to fill up quickly,” he said. “Passengers seated up front have to travel backward to stow their belongings, then return upstream, clogging the aisle. Then after landing, the same thing happens in reverse, only now it’s worse because everybody is moving up the aisle en masse. The tedious deplaning process is made even worse.”

If there is an announcement at the counter to check your bag for free, as there now is on nearly every flight, don’t hesitate: Volunteer. You’re saving $35 from actually checking your bag and you are alleviating traffic in the aisles. Just don’t forget to grab your medications first.

There are ways to deal with most onboard annoyances, but there’s one problem I suggest you don’t tangle with: the surly flight attendant. Try to get the upper hand in this battle and you’ll wind up with a foot run over by a rogue beverage cart. Even worse, you’ll find yourself on Kathleen’s hilarious Passenger Shaming Facebook page.

Piparaiya advises being as sweet as possible with surly flight attendants. Whitmore, who worked as a flight attendant, said don’t challenge the flight attendant unless you want to get tossed off the plane. Instead, jot down the name and flight number and contact the airline. Even better, take to Twitter when you get home.

But before you sharpen your claws, try to think of some of the jerks the flight attendant has already dealt with that day.

Kathleen spent years dealing with everything from passengers putting their bare feet all over the cabin to belligerent drunks. (You can see some of these misdeeds on the Passenger Shaming page). Meanwhile she heard constant complaints.

“It’s cute that people think flight attendants have the power to configure an aircraft,” she said. “However, we don’t. We also don’t have the power to control the weather, air traffic delays, or your bag getting lost. We’re there for two specific reasons: One is safety, two is comfort.”

My rule is that I act the same on a plane as I do in a restaurant. I’m always aware that I’m surrounded by other people, so I turn down the volume on video games and music coming through my headphones. I don’t bring a big bag of aromatic food with me to eat during the flight, I keep my socks on, and most importantly, I always give the flight attendant a smile sweeter than shoofly pie smothered in Cool Whip.

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Christopher Muther can be reached at christopher.muther@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther.