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In-Flight Etiquette: How To Keep Peace In The Cabin

As airplane cabins get more cramped, discomfort climbs.
As airplane cabins get more cramped, discomfort climbs.

On a Sunday night flight from Washington, D.C., to Ghana, a passenger reclined his seat a little too close to the lap of the man sitting behind him. The man retaliated by slapping the head of the passenger in front of him, and, ultimately, a fistfight ensued. The pilot turned the jet around, and two F-16s were scrambled to escort the flight back to Washington.

"Reclining the seats is a major issue," says Scott McCartney, who writes The Middle Seat Terminal blog and column for the Wall Street Journal. "You have very limited space. If you want to work on your laptop and the person in front of you reclines, you may not be able to."

Though the fight that broke out on the Sunday night flight was obviously an overreaction, McCartney tells NPR's Neal Conan, confrontations over seat reclining happen almost every day on airplanes.


Last March, McCartney assembled a panel of experts — a veteran flight attendant, an etiquette expert and frequent fliers — and asked them about the proper etiquette when it comes to reclining your seat on an airplane. He offers the following guidance — gleaned from personal experience and input from his panel — to help maintain in-flight harmony.

When reclining your seat: McCartney says if you're thinking of reclining, "use some care for the person behind you." You can recline slowly, or turn around and ask the passenger behind you if it's OK. When McCartney needs to work on his laptop during the flight, he says, he sometimes asks the passenger in front of him if he'd mind not reclining the whole way.

When you're in the window seat, your seatmates are asleep and you need to get up: "Most [panelists] thought that if you have to go to the bathroom, go," McCartney says. Other panelists suggested the aisle seat passenger could try to coordinate times when everyone could get up. And if you need to wake up someone next to you, try touching a shoulder or an arm, not a hand, "or you might startle somebody."

When you're hungry or bored: McCartney advises being mindful of your travel companions. Think about whether that big greasy burger with extra onions or that violent movie might offend the person wedged in next to you.

When you're too tall or wide for the seat: The seats are about 17 inches wide on a Boeing 737, McCartney says, and people don't have a lot of sympathy — especially not for obese passengers. Exit and bulkhead rows can provide a bit of relief, though.


When a kid kicks your seat: McCartney advises not trying to discipline someone else's child. You don't want to put the parent in a defensive posture.

Who gets the arm rest? "Arm rests are a real battle," McCartney says. Some people believe the beleaguered middle-seater deserves both; others say it's first come, first rested. So the jury's still out on that one.

Ultimately, McCartney says, the thing that's missing from air travel is the notion that we're all in this together. "I think passengers can help each other more than they really do."

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