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Away Game

Five Rules for Being a Good Airline Passenger

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If you were the world’s most frequent flier you’d likely encounter hundreds of flight attendants over the course of a year. Now consider that the average flight attendant encounters hundreds of passengers over the course of a day.

Statistically that doesn’t prove much of anything. But if your job put you in contact with thousands of people a year you’d begin seeing patterns in how they behaved. Last year several flight attendants cited irritating and dangerous passenger behavior and suggested ways we could all have a happier flight.

Then, as now, it’s possible that your typical in-flight behavior might not be cause for complaint. “In my 23 years of flying I still find that 95 percent of the flying public follow the rules, are conscious of other passengers, and are reliably polite,” says flight attendant Betty Thesky, author and podcast host of Betty in the Sky with a Suitcase. “But there is still that five percent who fight, cause problems, and do crazy things. I think this percentage might be identical in any given group of people, whether they are on a plane or not.”

Again, this may not be a statistical fact, but it’s a really good rule of thumb. And I would go on to suggest that as fliers, even if most of us are among that obedient 95 percent, we don’t fall within that category 100 percent of the time. Care to see in which percentile you think you belong? Buckle up.

Don’t talk trash before takeoff.

While gauging whether this topic was fertile enough for a sequel I discovered that business blogger Ken Walker had just finished a four-part post featuring his friend Ange, a Southwest Airlines flight attendant. She reminded him that pre-flight is the worst possible time to make demands on flight attendants, as that’s when they’re running through safety procedures, inventorying catering supplies, and counting and securing passengers. Walker says “Ange’s favorite [request involves] the "emergency trash" drill. People bring garbage onto the plane with them for some odd reason and they ring the call button as soon as they sit down and expect a flight attendant to come and dispose of it for them.”

Turn. Off. Your. Phone.

The FAA dictates that all cell phones must be turned off once the cabin door closes, but that’s when the fun typically begins, says flight attendant Heather Poole, who says she must routinely go through the cabin asking passengers to turn off their phones. “I try to be funny because people are so sensitive about it,” but when she sees “a guy in an exit row with his head between his knees, do I think he’s talking to the floor? No, I know he’s on the phone.” Thesky concurs that it’s common for her to approach passengers “and ask them pointedly to turn off the phone and they reply, ‘Yeah, I know’ and then continue talking. This can be an exhaustive routine especially because there is typically only one flight attendant for every 50 passengers.”

Frequent flier Walker literally lets himself off the hook by trying to avoid in-flight gadget use altogether. “One thing I do is to actually mark ‘In Air Flight Time’ on my corporate calendar. I even fudge a little extra time before and after the scheduled time in the air to account for delays. This lets people at home in the office know that, not only am I ‘out of office,’ but that I'm incommunicado as well.” Walker also tries to get to the airport early to knock off any last-minute communications with the goal of turning off all his mobile devices before boarding.

Negotiate your own seat changes.

As a parent herself, Poole is sympathetic to families who are unable to book seats together, but observes that many passengers think that a flight attendant “can make a person move, but we can’t. The FAA doesn’t consider families not sitting together a safety violation.” If she’s unable to book seats for herself and her child together, Poole says she’ll book an aisle and a window seat, “and that way I’ll get more people I can ask to switch.” Aisle seats are the easiest to negotiate with, she says, followed by window, with the middle naturally being last.

Sometimes a little bravado will do the trick. Poole once saw a passenger offer to pay another to move. “It was a street-smart kind of kid who wanted to sit with his friends,” Poole recalls. “He offered $50 and I remember thinking ‘I can’t believe I’ve never seen this before.’” The passenger who got the offer did end up moving but “didn’t take the money, but the fact that it was offered probably made a difference,” Poole notes.

Appoint a point person.

Walker says he’s seen a parent “take on the role of ‘single point of contact’ for their family” to minimize demands on the flight attendant’s time. “One man in particular was taking his family of six to Disney in Orlando. He was constantly collecting cups and trash from all of his family's seats. So relieved was the flight attendant to be able to quickly pass through that section of the plane that she snuck him a beer later in the flight when everyone was finally calm.” On that score, “sneak” is the operative word: No matter how good your deed, flight attendants are not permitted to provide passengers with freebies.

Be nice.

One simple way to endear yourself to your flight attendant would be to use a verbal pleasantly in lieu of the “wave away,” Poole says, noting there are times when she’ll ask a passenger if she can take his tray away “and you’ll just get the flip,” or alternately if a passenger wants his cup removed, “there’s no talking, just a gesture” to take it. Likewise, flight attendants appreciate when passengers are kind to each other. Poole recalls a flight when an elderly man “threw a fit because his overhead bin was full,” but then the man in 5A who had filled that bin with his own family’s bags “got up and offered to help [the man] with his bag, and defused the situation.” As a result, even though Mr. 5A and his three kids were needy during the flight, it was a pleasure to attend to them, Poole says, knowing how the elderly man’s opening comment to 5A, “Your stuff is in my bin,” easily could have led to a bad flight for all.