Jessie Char was elated. She had scored an empty row on her JetBlue fight from Long Beach to San Francisco. She pulled up the armrests to stretch out and enjoy the breathing room.
Then it happened.
A pair of bare feet emerged from the row behind her. The feet pushed down the armrests and turned them into footrests. One of the bare feet then pulled up Char’s window shade, and then pulled it down. Char documented it all through photos on Twitter, and 30,000 people followed along.
“Today, I flew on the set of a nightmare,” she posted.
Her tale wound up on the “Today Show,” People magazine, CNN, and the British newspaper the Telegraph.
“Most people were absolutely horrified at the scene — more than I actually felt being there,” Char recently told me. “I was stunned by the boldness of it. I’m sure I’d been around bare feet on plenty of flights. This was the first time they demanded such . . . attention. There was no coyness when those feet came out.”
Sadly Char’s experience was far from unique. Most of us who have been on a plane have been a victim of exposed feet creeping into our personal space — or simply creeping us out. For some reason, and I’ve yet to figure out why, there are passengers who feel comfortable, even compelled, to remove their shoes and socks and wiggle their toes in the recirculating breeze of the cabin. In other words, all their little piggies went to market, and none stayed home.
I can’t believe I need to say this, but it’s clearly necessary, so here it goes: In the name of all that is holy, please leave your shoes and/or socks on your feet when you’re on an airplane. No one wants to see your bare feet hoisted in the air, resting on a tray table, walking down the aisle, or going into the lavatory.
You know how the floor in an airplane bathroom is usually wet? Well, I hate to tell you, but that’s not Pine-Sol down there.
I know for a fact that I’m not the only one disturbed by this phenomenon. In fact, in our currently divided nation, it seems that a shared disdain of bare feet on planes is bringing the country together. Last month a short video of an unidentified man scrolling through movie options on an airplane screen with a bare foot went viral.
Who knows where this foot had been, and yet there it was, shamelessly touching a screen with toes that had likely stepped in probably-not-Pine-Sol on the bathroom floor.
The video was uploaded by author Alafair Burke (she did not take the video) to Twitter and has been viewed more than 10 million times.
The scrolling foot scandal of 2019 set off a torrent of disgusted responses when it was posted on the Instagram account of Passenger Shaming, a hilarious, often horrific look at the worst behavior on airplanes. Many of the posts involve inappropriately bare feet.
Nearly 500,000 people watched the clip of the foot scroller on Passenger Shaming, prompting comments such as “This is what the no fly list should be for,” and “Every time I think humanity can’t set the bar any lower, someone like this says, ‘Hold my beer.’ ” Those feet showed up on evening news broadcasts, newspaper websites, and launched a thousand Internet rants.
If the world appears disgusted by so many naked feet on airplanes, why on earth are people still doing it?
“They have zero self awareness,” said Shawn Kathleen, a former flight attendant who runs the Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook accounts for Passenger Shaming. “They’re thinking ‘I paid a few hundred dollars, I can do whatever I want. I can treat this $100 million aircraft like my living room.’ P.S., I feel like you wouldn’t even do that in your own living room. Would you put your feet up on your wall?”
While bare feet in general aren’t a good idea on planes, feet that creep onto armrests and invade personal space are even worse. It’s like a foot flashing the middle toe and saying, “Bug off. I’ll do whatever I want.”
Jon Campbell, a reporter based in Albany, was on a Frontier Airlines flight last month ready to begin his vacation when he spotted a pair of bare feet swaying high above the seats like some sort of flag with toe nails.
“I wouldn’t say I was horrified,” Campbell said of the scene. “More like perplexed. It seemed like such a blatant violation of the unwritten code of being a good airline passenger.”
Etiquette experts are unwavering on the topic: You need to keep your feet covered.
“If you’re at home alone, you could sit around stark naked with your feet up on the wall and it wouldn’t bother anyone. Out in public, and especially in such a confined space as an airplane, behavior like that is aggressively inconsiderate,” said Boston resident Robert Dimmick, who runs an etiquette advice website called Etiquetteer. “Good manners prevent embarrassing situations, pure and simple. That also means that shoes need to stay on, because your socks stink, too.”
Diane Gottsman, author of “Modern Etiquette for a Better Life,” and founder of The Protocol School of Texas, also said foot odor is one of the key reasons why feet should remain covered on flights.
“Every passenger should take pride in their personal hygiene and be keenly aware of what others are going to think before deciding to remove their shoes in any enclosed space,” Gottsman said. “If you are on a long flight, bring a pair of clean socks to change into, and make sure the shoes you are wearing are fresh, without any odor. If the flight is multiple hours, a clean pair of house shoes is a better option than bare feet.”
Bare feet can present a problem for those of us who are thoughtful enough to keep our feet covered. What do we do if a pair of bunions crosses into our already limited economy class territory?
Because I’m from Boston, I often take a passive aggressive approach to dealing with bare feet on my armrest. With a slow, deliberate turn, I give a side-eye so chilling it could freeze fajitas. You’d be surprised how often the technique works.
The experts don’t recommend a chilling side-eye. If a bare foot, or generally any appendage, is invading your personal space, you should politely ask the individual to remove the offending body part.
“I wouldn’t ask a crew member until you’ve exhausted trying to ask without causing a big argument because, obviously, you don’t want this to be a huge issue,” said Kathleen of Passenger Shaming.
Despite the scourge of bare feet in the air, remember, it could always be worse.
“As a former flight attendant, I can say as disgusting as this is, it’s probably not quite at the top of the list of disgusting things any flight attendant who has been flying for a while has encountered,” said Vikki Brown, a psychologist and anxiety specialist in Cambridge.
I refrained from asking Brown what some of those other disgusting things are. At this point, bare feet are more than enough for me.