Airplane seats are getting smaller, flights have never been more full and the airlines have made it costlier and more difficult to get the seats you want.
All of this means more squabbling over armrests, tray tables, personal space and noise issues than ever before. With millions of Americans preparing to travel for the holidays, we reached out to Judith Martin, better known as Miss Manners, for some guidance on flight etiquette.
Martin has been chronicling the “rise and fall of American manners” since 1978 and is the author of numerous books about etiquette, including her latest, Miss Manners Minds Your Business. She has traveled all over the world and knows how to deal with airplane bullies, armrest hogs, obese seatmates and just about any other situation one might encounter on an airplane or an airport.
Airline seats keep getting narrower but Americans aren’t getting smaller. How does one deal with an obese seatmate who spills over into their seat?
A lot of people get angry with them but what are they supposed to do about it? If they had the money, they could buy two seats or one in business class, but not everyone can afford it. If there’s another seat available, take it. If you need to make an excuse, just say, ‘I think we’ll both be more comfortable if I switch seats.’ People move seats all the time, I don’t think it’s a personal insult.
Sometimes airlines ask obese passengers to buy two seats but enforcement is selective and sporadic. How do passengers prevent fights breaking out either with seatmates being squeezed or customers not getting on a flight?
They should have seats that fit people. If the population is getting bigger, then the seats should be wider. This is a service problem; if you’re going to make seats that a lot of people can’t fit into, there are going to be problems. But these issues shouldn’t be points of antagonism between passengers.
How do you deal with a chatty seatmate on a plane? Is it rude to put headphones on?
I like to read on a plane. You just say very apologetically, ‘I have some reading to do,’ or ‘I have to think something through,’ if you don’t have a book, or ‘I’m exhausted, I’m going to try to sleep.’ As long as you say ‘sorry’ you’re fine.
What about armrest etiquette?
The armrests are getting so small they aren’t much use to anyone. The first person who claims it can keep it for a while but eventually they should relinquish it. The middle seat person has access to both armrests, but one is really enough. If they take turns with both people, they’re fine.
Is it rude to recline your seat?
People feel it’s rude because it makes them uncomfortable, which is a legitimate complaint, but they blame the person who put their seat back in front of them. But people can be forgiven for thinking that if the seat is engineered to go back, then it’s a reasonable thing to do. If it’s bothering you, talk to the person, apologetically. Tell them, ‘This is pressing against my knees, can you recline with less of an incline?’ But that’s not what people do- they start kicking the seat or they ball out the person who’s done it.
Some people feel the need to have their seat reclined even during meal service. What’s to be done with them?
I blame the airlines for making a seat that you can recline that creates a problem for people. What are they thinking? If they had any interest in the comfort of their passengers- clearly they do not- there would be more space. Think of you and your fellow passengers as being on a lifeboat- you’re all in a bad situation-the best you can do is to help one another.
What’s the best way to approach your fellow passengers if you’re asking them to switch seats on a flight?
You’re asking a favor and it should be phrased as a big favor. ‘I’m so sorry, but they’ve separated me from my child, and I think everyone would be happier if we could sit together so I could keep an eye on her.’ Or you can appeal to the flight attendant and ask them to seat you together. Passengers have an absolute right to refuse these requests, but you should also do it politely. Say ‘I’m sorry, but I prefer to keep my seat.’ But if you don’t switch, you might find yourself next to an unhappy six-year-old for the whole flight.
There’s been a number of incidents with passengers or flight crew asking breastfeeding moms to cover up or go to the bathroom. Is it OK to nurse a child from your seat?
There are discrete ways to breastfeed. You don’t want a woman to occupy a bathroom for a long time because other people have to use it. I think it’s extreme to make women use the bathroom. And it’s a rather unpleasant venue anyway. If the baby has to eat, the baby has to eat. But there are discrete ways to do it and there is certainly no excuse for flaunting it.
How about passengers that take off their shoes and socks off on a flight? Is that bad manners?
Yes, it certainly can be. I can see taking off your shoes and putting on socks of some kind to be more comfortable, but bare feed can be odorous.
How can parents with unruly children signal to the other passengers that they feel bad about the disturbance and are trying to keep their kids quiet?
Show people you are trying to do something about it. That will gain you some sympathy. If you seem callous to it, then people will be furious and understandably so. I know someone who would bring a sack full of earplugs and hand them out before the baby even did anything and that would get everyone’s sympathy.
And if the parent is reading a magazine while their child is throwing a tantrum?
You say, ‘I think your child seems to be in distress.’
We did a story recently about whether it’s OK to ask out your flight attendant. Where do you come down on that question?
There’s a fine line between flirting and harassment. Female flight attendants are burdened with a history of the airlines insinuating that they were available. They had ads saying, ‘Fly me.’ You need to be extremely cautious but human nature prevails. If someone makes an overture that seems to be welcomed, who knows where it might lead?
A lot of travelers think that the way TSA conducts their security pat-downs is degrading. What’s the polite way to object if their pat-down seems overly grabby?
It is very undignified. Most of the TSA people are polite but it’s a very degrading situation. We’ve agreed to do it for the sake of safety, so the more dignity both sides can lend to it the better.
Just one question about hotels. I’ve noticed that some people wear pajamas and bare feet to have breakfast in some hotels. Is that rude?
Yes, it is rude. People really don’t want to see others in their pajamas and bare feet. People wear pajamas on the streets these days too. Hotels and restaurants should have dress codes but they’re skittish about these things. People who want to have breakfast in their pajamas should order room service.