A five-point in-flight etiquette guide for air travellers: follow this for a happy landing

  • Be considerate with your fellow passengers and don’t invade their territory
  • Ask before you recline your seat and don’t take up more room than you should
PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 12 December, 2018, 6:01am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 December, 2018, 6:57pm

Nobody likes flying, and many of us are bad at it. As planes get more crowded, the way passengers of all ages and from all walks of life behave towards each other in a confined space for long periods is becoming more important. The trouble is, not everyone knows the rules.

“The aeroplane is the scene of countless etiquette breaches,” says Paul Russell, a luxury lifestyle and etiquette expert who recently launched a Virtual Finishing School covering manners, etiquette, body language and small talk.

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Do not be territorial

If you sit in the aisle, you own the aisle and control who gets in and out of your row. In the middle seat, you own both armrests. If you’ve got the window seat, the shade is yours. These may be the unspoken rules, but be adaptable when it comes to hardware.

If you are in the middle seat and the passenger next to you is trying to get some work done on a laptop, are you really going to force him to tuck in his elbows and peck at a keyboard?

“It may be that you have the use of both armrests for a while, and relinquish your grip on one side as your neighbour catches up with work on their laptop,” says Russell, who thinks it would certainly be ill-mannered to take control of both armrests the moment you sit down.

Above all, it is about empathy. “We’ve all been stuck in the middle before, so be extra nice,” says Desmond So, founder and chief consultant of East-West Institute of Applied Etiquette. “Those by the window and aisle can practice some empathy since they have an uncontested armrest each.”

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When to recline your seat

You are allowed to recline your seat, but when and how is unclear. “You should always ask the person behind you first if they mind,” says Alana Gomez, spokesperson for Hong Kong-based flight comparison site While this would be the polite solution, in reality it rarely happens.

As a minimum, do not recline the moment you get onto the plane. “It is pointless anyway and does not endear you to the passengers seated behind you,” says Russell. “For the minute amount of extra space it offers, it is worth taking a light touch with reclining the seat.”

Exactly how much discomfort you’ll cause the person sitting behind you depends on the size of their legs. So check them out.

“Be mindful and aware of your surroundings and who is sitting in front, beside, and behind you,” says So. “A six-year-old child will be a lot more tolerant, and comfortable, with you fully reclining your seat than a member of the Hungarian national basketball team. But you take your chances – six-year-olds kick.”

Do not shout at children

Speaking of children that kick – how should you react to an unruly kid sitting behind you? “This can be extremely annoying, but similarly it can be extremely annoying for the parent if you berate the child, and neither is it your place to do so,” says Russell. “Introducing yourself to parent and child is a good course of action; you can then assess the situation, and maybe announce your intention to have a nap.”

However, if there is no parent in sight, then you have the right to take action. “If the child is a bit older, you can consider talking to him or her directly,” says So. “Be firm, remain polite and calm, and bear in mind that a child spited kicketh 10 times as hard.”

Pick your battles, and if all else fails and it descends into anarchy, ask a flight attendant to intervene.

How to use the overhead lockers

Each row has an overhead locker. So why does someone from elsewhere on the plane always fill yours before you even get to your seat?

“It’s best to utilise the overhead compartment that is directly above your own seat,” says Russell. “If you find that it is full, then you may choose to place your bag at your feet and look for another available bin once most passengers are seated.” That is a last resort, but always be considerate.

“Stack your belongings so you’re only taking up about a third of the bin,” says So. “Be careful not to crush the belongings of others, especially if you can see that it is a handmade bridal headpiece … or crisps.”

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Rules that only frequent fliers know about

Frequent fliers have a lot more to say about in-flight etiquette than most passengers.

“There are a few rules that should be observed in-flight that never really get spoken about,” says Gomez. “Do not use headrests to propel yourself forwards, do not dangle your leg in the aisle even if it’s empty, and do not rush forward to get off the plane. Everyone’s in the same boat: wait your turn and exit row by row.”

The latter is a basic rule of etiquette that is routinely ignored, yet never by those who travel a lot.

“Frequent fliers are well versed in plane etiquette. They do not race ahead to secure their seat or sprint to the baggage carousel,” says Russell. “For them, a flight is no different to a business dinner.”