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7 Airplane Habits That Offend Your Fellow Travelers

Good intentions only go so far, etiquette experts say.

Any time you board an aircraft, you're agreeing to share tight quarters with complete strangers for an extended period of time. In other words, for the flight to go smoothly, everyone needs to be on their best behavior. "Airplane etiquette is not simply about kindness but also about fostering a sense of understanding and cohesiveness in a confined space," explains Jules Hirst, founder of Etiquette Consulting. Without this mindset, things can quickly devolve, as we've seen in countless news stories about unruly passengers.

Of course, even travelers with the best of intentions can still offend others on a flight—and you may be making some of these subtle mistakes without realizing your error. Want to avoid ruffling feathers on your next flight? Read on to learn the seven "polite" things you're doing on airplanes that are actually offensive, according to etiquette experts.

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"Sharing" the middle armrest


When as children we're taught the basics of polite behavior, there's a distinct emphasis on sharing. However, etiquette experts say that when it comes to the middle armrests on an airplane, attempting to share is actually considered rude.

Jodi RR Smith, founder of Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting, explains that there's a clear code of conduct when claiming that space—and only one person has dibs.

"Here is the way armrest ownership goes. For a row with two seats, the middle armrest is shared. For a row with three seats, BOTH middle armrests are for the person in the middle. The window traveler has the wall and the aisle traveler has the space of the aisle," she tells Best Life.

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Retrieving someone's luggage for them without asking

A young woman putting her carry-on luggage into an overhead bin
iStock / SDI Productions

Fellow passengers may very well appreciate your help in retrieving their luggage if you get up before them at landing. However, you should never get other people's baggage from the overhead compartment without consulting them first.

"Do not take it upon yourself to grab someone's bag or personal item without their permission. Always ask first so as not to offend or frighten the other person," advises Hirst.

Climbing over someone instead of waking them

passengers on airplane
Matej Kastelic / Shutterstock

You may think it's polite to avoid waking another passenger to get out of your seating row, but climbing over your sleeping neighbor is a far worse offense.

"If the person in the aisle seat is sleeping and you need to get out of your row, rather than stepping over him, softly say, 'Excuse me,' and if necessary, gently tap him on the arm," says Laura Windsor, founder of Laura Windsor Etiquette & Protocol Academy. "It is OK to wake up a passenger—it's how you do it that matters! Stepping over someone is not elegant and can be a rude surprise."

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Using the recliner position on a short flight

Man sleeping on plane

Many people also don't realize that just because you can recline your seat on an airplane doesn't mean you should. Smith recommends holding off on reclining if your flight time is under a certain length.

"For red-eye or overseas flights, where it is presumed you will at least attempt to sleep, then reclining will be the norm," she explains. "For quick commuter trips of less than two hours, then the norm is to remain in the upright position."

Working on the flight

Business travel. Mature businesswoman sitting in an airplane using a laptop.

It may seem inoffensive to work on the flight, but Smith warns that it's impolite to use your tray table as a computer table for any extended period of time.

"This may come as a complete surprise, but the tray table was designed for your dining convenience. It is there for drinks, snacks, and the occasional meal. It was not designed to support your laptop," she says.

Since the tray table is attached to the seat in front of you, every movement of your tray table causes additional, and usually unwanted, movement of that seat, she explains.

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Asking politely to switch seats

A woman boarding a commercial plane.

Asking nicely for favors is certainly better than making demands, but when it comes to strangers on a flight, it's best to avoid imposing in the first place. Case in point: asking politely to switch seats. Windsor says that you should avoid making this request, instead making arrangements to sit together with friends or family when you buy your tickets.

"Asking someone to switch seats can be a little offensive especially if they don't want to comply. It puts people in a difficult spot as they may feel bad refusing to do so," she explains.

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Getting chatty with others in your row

Interior of airplane with people sitting on seats and talking. Friends traveling by flight.

Though it's certainly polite to say hello as you sit down or to have a brief exchange as you board, the experts say you should avoid being overly chatty with those sitting next to you in your row. After all, flights can be many hours long, and you don't want your seat neighbor to feel trapped in conversation or obligated to entertain you.

Instead, after greeting others politely, feel free to put on your headphones, watch some in-flight entertainment, read a book, or close your eyes. This will keep you busy while taking any pressure off your neighboring passengers.

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Lauren Gray
Lauren Gray is a New York-based writer, editor, and consultant. Read more
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