7 Jun 2023

The golden rules of air travel

The days of flying being in any way glamorous are long gone for most air-travellers. For most people, flying is a means to an end and they dread the crowded airport, the queuing, the cramped seating and proximity to fellow passengers. But in these testing circumstances, common courtesy should still apply, whether in first class or on a no-frills carrier, and will go some way to mitigating any inconvenience or discomfort.

At the Airport

In general, it is best to approach the whole experience with an air of calm detachment. Once you enter the airport terminal you have very little agency; you must simply react to instructions and announcements, and the best you can do is to respond promptly and efficiently. It is polite to others to be organised: queue patiently, have your documentation ready and be prepared for security checks.

In airport lounges, respect the ambience and atmosphere. If fellow-passengers are attempting to work, then loud conversations (with friends and colleagues, or on mobiles) should be avoided. Similarly, avoid conducting confidential or sensitive business calls in earshot of fellow passengers. Departure lounges can get very crowded, so be considerate about seating and don’t use empty chairs as depositories for all your baggage and possessions.

On the Plane

Be polite to the crew and queue calmly and patiently to board; do not push and shove or attempt to queue-barge. Once on board, try to sit down as quickly as possible. Avoid blocking the aisle when stowing bags in the overhead lockers and be aware of those of a smaller build who may need help lifting up bags and cases. When the plane lands, be patient, help other passengers with heavy bags, and let parent and children disembark first. You may be desperate to get off the plane ahead of everybody else, but a few minutes delay will not make much difference.

Stay within your own designated space and do not hog the armrest. Manspreading should be avoided when space is ast a premium.

Be courteous to a neighbour by getting up to let them out into the aisle, not making them scramble over you. Don’t tug on the back of the seat in front of you as you haul yourself to your feet ­ – it will disturb the passenger in front of you.

It is fine to avoid all but the most essential conversation and best to make it clear that you do not wish to talk by shutting your eyes, reading or putting on your headphones, even if nothing is playing. 


It’s stressful taking children on planes as they hate being confined for long periods. Before you fly with children, think about keeping them entertained and come well equipped with crayons, papers, books, or a tablet (make sure that you bring headphones).

Wriggling, restless children have a tendency to kick, jolt, or otherwise interfere with, the seat in front, so you need to be on your guard, or your child will drive the unfortunate victim mad. Restrain children from running up and down the aisle, especially when the lights are off.

If a baby or child is upset during the flight, parents can try getting up and walking around – cabin space is limited, but a child may respond well to a change of scene. Nobody wants a child to cry on the plane, so other passengers should avoid showing irritation. If they do display frustration, they will only make harassed parents feel even more fraught, which may well communicate itself to the child and prolong the agony. If children around you are very noisy, it is always a good idea to use headphones or earbuds to screen out most of the din.

Seat Reclining

There is no doubt that, on economy flights with cramped seating, having a seat reclined in front of you can make you feel trapped and claustrophobic (though it has no measurable impact on your legroom). It would be considerate, therefore, to refrain from reclining your seat on short-haul flights, and accept that it will enhance other passengers’ comfort if you forego the chance of snatching a quick sleep. After all, on short-haul flights many passengers are working on laptops, or travelling with small children, which is very difficult if the seat in front is reclined.

Long-haul flights are a different story, and many passengers will choose to while away night-time hours sleeping in a reclined position. If you want to recline your seat, follow these suggestions:

• Before you do anything, look behind you and check the situation of the passenger (they may, for example be working, or have a small child on their lap).

• If possible, make eye contact and say something polite like “I’m just going to recline my seat for a while – I hope that’s okay.” Faced with a polite enquiry, most people won’t object.

• Try and ease your seat gently back into the recline position and opt for a compromise position that will not impede the passenger behind too badly. Avoid an abrupt catapult into the full recline position, which may well cause disruption in the row behind.

• Don’t contemplate reclining your seat during the drinks and meal service – it’s hard enough juggling a drink and meal combination on a small fold-down tray at the best of times, and almost impossible when the tray has descended below your knee level. 

If you see yourself as the ‘victim’ of an inconsiderate seat-recliner in the row in front, do not have recourse to passive-aggressive reactions like kicking the seat in front, or pointing the light or air nozzle at the guilty culprit. This sort of behaviour can escalate into out-and-out conflict, and nobody wants a violent argument in a cramped cabin at 30,000 feet.

If you are unbearably uncomfortable, you could try a very polite request: “I’m so sorry, but would you mind just easing up your seat a bit?” If that doesn’t work you could take your problem to the cabin crew – it’s possible that they might be able to seat you elsewhere, or they might be willing to intervene and reiterate your request. As always, make your request politely, don’t demand that they sort out the problem. Just say something like “Excuse me, I’m sorry to trouble you, but I’m very cramped here, is there another seat available/would you mind asking the passenger in front if they could ease up a bit?”

Remember, everyone has the right to recline. You may feel that you take priority because you want to work on the flight, or because you are exceptionally tall and therefore already over-cramped, but you don’t. It is sometimes hard to accept, but each passenger has purchased a ticket and with it has acquired certain rights. The very best option is to stay calm and polite throughout, and hope that you can negotiate reasonable compromises.


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