Ethics and etiquette for bad behavior, boors and stinky food in coach at 30,000 feet.
Where else but on an airplane are people jammed into limited space and forced to share re-circulated air, not to mention bad behavior? One person leans back and encroaches on another. A neighbor's large belly or long legs extend into the space you paid for. One passenger's onion rings are polluting an entire row.
Travel in coach these days and expect to be infringed upon somehow. Stress, fatigue, thin air and the yearning to stretch out bring out the worst manners in many. Travelers do things they'd never do at home or in the office. Among strangers, they elbow each other over arm rests or splay legs to grab as much real estate as possible.
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Frustrated and fatigued parents watch with resignation as their children kick seats or pound tray tables. Game-players and music listeners leave the volume up, never thinking that those around them must listen to their beat as well.
To some, the decline in civility aboard passenger jets coincides with a decline in airline service and comfort and an increase in airline rules and fees. By pushing seats closer together, filling middle seats far more frequently and replacing amenities with fees, airlines have helped bring out the worst in their customers.
"You're being put-upon in a way you shouldn't be in the first place," says Anna Post, etiquette expert at the Emily Post Institute and a frequent traveler herself. "Stressed, often rushed, you're cramped, in many cases tired and hungry, thirsty and bored. None of these are conducive to getting along with strangers in a tight environment."
Travel authorities -- frequent travelers, long-time aviation industry leaders, flight attendants and ethics and etiquette experts -- don't agree on the best way to cope with on-board aggravations.
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Tolerance for intrusions varies. Some long-time travelers have adopted the attitude that if someone's legs stray into your legroom, kick back. Others say travelers have to have more tolerance for people with long legs that don't fit into tight airline seat pitch or large girth that won't squeeze into a 17.2-inch-wide seat.
"I think many frequent fliers try to take the approach that, 'We're all in this together for the next X hours' and try to make it work," says James Vesper, a platinum-level flyer on both Delta Air Lines (NYSE: DAL - News) and US Airways (NYSE: LCC - News).
And since airlines are filling their planes fuller than ever with passengers, frequent traveler Ron Goodenow has one suggestion: "I think it would be great if an airline, as part of its pre-flight announcement, said something like, 'We have a very crowded flight today folks. Please be kind to your neighbor.' "
1. You're in the middle seat, between two strangers. Who gets the armrests?
Anne Loew, veteran flight attendant: The folks in the aisle seat can lean toward the aisle, and the window-seat passenger has the window to lean on. The poor middle-seat passengers are suffering enough -- they get both armrests.
Gordon Bethune, former Continental Airlines chief executive: They do.
James Vesper, frequent traveler: The middle seat gets both arm rests.
Richard Wishner, frequent traveler: You share. The bigger guy gets the forward part of the armrest.
Anna Post, etiquette expert: There is no innate winner of the arm-rest battle. If I'm in the middle seat, I try to claim one. They are not both yours for the duration.
Kirk Hanson, Santa Clara University ethics professor: Fairness requires the allocation of at least one arm rest to each traveler. Therefore, the side seats get the "outbound" armrests away from the middle seat. The middle passenger gets both armrests, in part as compensation for the dreaded middle seat.
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2. A tall man sits down and his knees jut out wide, encroaching on your space.
Thom McDaniel, veteran flight attendant and union president: You are entitled to your space from armrest to armrest in the seat you purchased, so you should say something if anyone encroaches.
Marion Blakey, former head of the FAA and the NTSB: Nothing -- he can't help it. When the doors close look quickly for another seat.
Mr. Bethune: Gently push back.
Mr. Wishner: Drop something on the floor. When he hopefully picks it up, reclaim your legroom space.
Ms. Post: Body language can say a lot here. He bumps me I look down towards him -- not look at him. I'll adjust myself in a way that makes him realize he made me adjust. You can always say something, but tone is going to carry the day. Snarky is not OK.
Mr. Hanson: The tall man is not at fault for being tall. Candid discussion when you all sit down goes a long way toward everyone making accommodations for this situation.
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3. You're in the window seat and two strangers in the middle and aisle seats are asleep. You have to go to the bathroom.
Mr. McDaniel: No good options here. You have to wake them up politely. If you try crawling over them, not only is it really awkward looking, but if they wake up, you will startle them, and that's worse.
Mr. Bethune: Go to the restroom. Sorry.
Mr. Wishner: Climb over them.
Ron Goodenow, frequent traveler: I wait as long as possible and politely tap a shoulder and say something like "its that time." Never had a problem or nasty look.
Ms. Post: Tap them on the shoulder, the shoulder is a safe place, rather than the leg or a hand. Sometimes the act of unbuckling your seat belt will wake them up. If you're hopping up every 20 minutes, that is not acceptable.
Mr. Hanson: It is the responsibility of the person in the aisle seat to initiate a group bathroom break every 90 minutes or so. On long flights when people sleep, the aisle person should announce to the others that he or she is going to sleep and ask if anyone wants to get out before he does.
4. On a long flight on a full plane, some kids are getting restless, speaking loudly, and kicking seatbacks.
Ms. Loew: Say something to mommy and daddy.If it doesn't stop tell the flight attendant.
Ms. Blakey: I watched one flight attendant handle this adroitly by saying she "would hate to have to put him off the plane." Not another kick.
Mr. Wishner: Turn up the volume on your headset.
Mr. Goodenow: Look back and leave a perplexed look and say something like "been there, done that" to the weary parent.
Ms. Post: It's not good to try to discipline someone else's child. Ask for what you want, but don't try to justify it. Tone carries a lot. You don't want to get into an argument with parents.
Mr. Hanson: Travelers who are particularly sensitive to noise should carry earphones or earplugs. My first tactic is always to look between the seats and get the eye of both child and parent. If the kicking continues, then I get up and look over the seat top and ask politely for the parent to control the kicking. The third step is to ask the flight attendant to intervene.
5. Your seatmate brings a smelly meal on board and loudly starts munching.
Ms. Loew: Food that looks and smells as if it came from an episode of Anthony Bourdain's "Nasty Bits" could be, for some, one step too far. But not much can be done once the person is slopping and munching away.
Mr. Goodenow: My normal solution is to crank up my MP3 player and curl up in the direction of the window until it is over, praying my clothes will escape.
Ms. Blakey: Basically [you have to endure it] unless he spills on you.
Mr. Vesper: If my clothing is endangered, I'd ask him/her if they have an extra napkin. Otherwise I breathe through my mouth.
Ms. Post: May be totally gross, but the damage is done. You can't tell someone they can't eat that. If they are spilling, yes, say something. You can't be food police on the plane.
Mr. Hanson: Airlines have brought this on themselves by eliminating food service. Not only did I have a middle seat [recently], I was in the back and all the food-for-sale was gone by the time they reached me. I got out my smelly cheese and ate it in front of my seatmates.
6. Do you recline your seat?
Ms. Loew: More people are choosing not to recline in deference to their fellow passenger. If someone reclines and you can't do your work, then you are permitted to ask them to please adjust their seat. Expect a dirty look and a 50/50 chance of achieving your goal.
Mr. McDaniel: You have the right to recline, however it is nice if you check to see if anyone has their computer open or has something that can spill on their tray before reclining. If you choose to recline, do it slowly or just halfway.
Mr. Bethune: Live with it. The recline is your space.
Mr. Wishner: Put your knee in the back of his seat.
Ms. Post: It's OK to recline, just don't do it fast. If the airline gives you the option to recline, that is yours. You don't need to ask permission.
Mr. Hanson: Some seats are so close together, and some seatbacks recline so much, that ethics and courtesy demand not asserting your "right" to recline all the way. One should always assess the impact your reclining has on the person behind.
Write to Scott McCartney at email@example.com