The Dos And Don’ts of Being A Good Airplane Seatmate

airplane etiquette in practice.

DON’T treat exiting the plane like a race. Believe it or not, there is a simple process to exiting a plane that everyone must follow. We all exit in order, front to back, aisle seat to window.

Every once in a while, I start feeling really good about the human race. “We are rocking at this whole ‘living in a civilized society’ thing,” I think, proudly. “What kind, thoughtful, evolved creatures we are!” 

And then I get on a plane, and I am instantly reminded that male hippos during mating season have more compassion and social grace.

It seems like as soon as normal, civilized people set foot on an airplane, they forget all manners, decency, and social skills. And the person who takes the brunt of this bad behavior? Whoever they’re sitting next to. So let’s go over some basic dos and don’ts for being a good airplane seatmate, shall we?

DO keep your elbow on your side of the armrest. Some people abide by hard and fast rules regarding armrest allowances (a friend of mine insists that the middle seater gets full access to both middle armrests) but I take a more pragmatic view of things. Basically, just don’t take more than your fair share. Be as generous as you can without totally sacrificing your own comfort. It’s not that hard. 

DON’T pack a pungent snack. That tuna and limburger cheese sandwich? Maybe not the best option for a small, cramped, unventilated space. Save it for your post-landing picnic.

DO be open to a bit of small talk. You never know who you’re going to sit next to on a plane, which can be part of the fun. Offer a friendly nod/hello upon sitting down, and be open to a bit of “so where are you headed?”-type conversation, but pay attention to social cues — when someone puts on their headphones, they’re effectively tapping out of the convo.  

DON’T launch into your life story before the plane has even taken off. Once, on a trip to New York, I sat down next to a woman who proceeded to tell me, in an uninterrupted string of words, that she had grown up in a cult and wanted to become a famous author but she had been betrayed by a news anchor who refused to leave his wife for her and sure she had seven kids at home but didn’t she deserve to enjoy life too? This was all before I’d even managed to buckle my seatbelt. Whoa. A friendly greeting and a little small talk is fine, but just because someone is trapped next to you for five hours doesn’t mean they signed on for an intimate five-hour therapy session.

DO be subtle about reading/watching over your seatmate’s shoulder. The close quarters of airplane seats basically guarantee that whatever you’re reading or watching is also going to be seen by your seatmate. This is fine — to a point. A glance or two is one thing, but don’t read an entire New Yorker article over her shoulder, or laugh loudly at the movie he’s watching on his iPad. 

DON’T treat exiting the plane like a race. Believe it or not, there is a simple process to exiting a plane that everyone must follow. We all exit in order, front to back, aisle seat to window. It takes a few minutes, but everyone gets off (file that sentence under “words that could be describing plane deboarding procedure or an orgy”). Turning this process into a race by frantically unbuckling and diving over the person in the aisle seat to get a better place in line is not just rude, it’s ineffective. When you do this, we ALL lose.  

DO keep your flying phobia to yourself (as much as possible). I’ve always been a nervous flyer, with anxiety levels that range from “slight discomfort” to “OH MY GOD I CAN’T DIE BEFORE I MEET CELINE DION” according to how much turbulence we’re encountering and how many Xanax I took before the flight. I’ve gotten to the point where I can feel pretty OK for most of a flight, but if the person next to me is openly freaking out, and keeps tapping me on the shoulder to ask, “Does that screw on the wing look loose to you?”, well, I’m going to start freaking out, too. If you’re feeling anxious, listen to calm music, breathe, and feel what you need to feel, but try not to bring other people into your panic party, if you can help it.

DO keep your germs to yourself, too. Airplanes are basically petri dishes of airborne disease that we all willingly subject ourselves to so we can get to Disney World. Flying when you’re sick sucks, but you know what else sucks? Being stuck in a seat next to a sick person who seems intent on infecting everyone in the vicinity. You don’t have to take any heroic measures here, just very basic hygiene etiquette will do: Cover your cough, wash your hands (as well as you can in those sad airplane bathroom sinks), and be sure your snotty Kleenex doesn’t end up in your seatmate’s lap. 

DON’T be a jerk about your seatmate needing to go to the bathroom. Is there anything worse than someone in the aisle seat who rolls their eyes and makes a big scene when you politely ask them to move so you can go to the bathroom? Listen, there are many benefits to an aisle seat — more room to maneuver, a full armrest to yourself, a quicker exit upon landing — in exchange for these benefits you also might have to get up a few times to allow your seatmates to use the restroom. Even with that slight inconvenience, you’re still getting the better end of the deal. So cut it out with the dramatic sighing, OK?

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