The 15 Golden Rules of Airplane Etiquette

After almost three years of COVID-dampened demand, flying is back in force at levels that haven’t been seen since before the pandemic began. This has not only caused flight disruptions. There has been a spike in unruly or misbehaving passenger reports, making flying a little tense. While some actions are not against an airline’s posted rules, there are some unspoken rules of flying everyone should be aware of.

Some of these guidelines may seem a little silly but following them can make a flight less stressful for everyone involved!

1. Be Prepared Getting On and Off the Plane

The problem with boarding a plane is that it takes a long time, with each stop holding up the line a bit more. Before boarding, move anything you need on the flight into your personal bag and be ready to quickly place your carry-on in the overhead bins. Getting off the plane, don’t wait until your row is up to begin gathering your luggage and cleaning your area. Be ready to deplane as soon as it’s your turn.

2. Don’t Hog the Overhead Bin

A key part of a quick boarding is everyone storing their carry-ons as smoothly as possible. If someone is hogging the space in an overhead bin, it can cause everyone else to adjust. Try to use the bin over your seat and only put one piece of luggage in there. There’s only so much overhead space to go around.

3. Be Polite to the Flight Attendants

Flight attendants work hard to make your flight as enjoyable as possible, and they often don’t get the respect they deserve. This has caused a national and international crisis of burnout and staff shortages, which has only exacerbated the issue for overworked attendants. Your kindness is appreciated and can make the flight better for you and the attendant team.

4. The Flight Attendants Know Best

Flight attendants aren’t just there to serve the passengers. They’re also onboard to keep everyone safe and behaving. This means that what they say goes — no matter what. If they tell you to put your seat or tray up — no questions, do it. Many of the rules are there to keep you safe in the event of an emergency and must be followed.

5. Remember, It’s a Shared Space

While you should be comfortable on a flight, remember that you’re not at home. When you’re sitting in your seat, don’t spread out as much as you can, invading your neighbors’ space. This can include reclining. There’s a big debate over whether you should recline on a plane. A good rule of thumb is it’s ok to recline for flights over five hours, though it’s courteous to ask the person behind you. Just make sure to return to the upright position during meals and landing.

6. Middle Seat Gets Armrests

It can stink to have the middle seat. They don’t have a window or space on the wall, and they don’t have the aisle to stretch a bit. They also have someone on both sides of them. For this reason, it’s an unspoken rule that they get first dibs on the two middle armrests.

7. Strategize and Limit Bathroom Breaks

The bathroom break shuffle on a plane can be frustrating. Limit your breaks to as few as possible. Use the bathroom before boarding and try to hold it if you’re close to your destination. If you may need multiple bathroom breaks, book the aisle seat so you don’t have to disturb your neighbors.

8. Honor Polite Requests

Everyone has to share the space until the flight is over. If someone politely asks something of you and it wouldn’t cause an issue, just do it. If your neighbor nicely asks you to wear a mask, put one on. If they need the bathroom, let them out.

The biggest exception to this wide-reaching nicety is seat-swapping. There is a bit of an intricate etiquette to seat-swapping. The seats must be roughly equal in value, and there should be a good reason for it. If it’s a parent wanting to sit with their child, or they have a short layover, be nice and swap. However, if someone just wants to swap seats, or if it would cause you an issue, you can politely decline.

9. Shoes On

Again, remember that you’re not at home. You’re in a small, confined space. Keep your shoes on. Nobody wants to see (or smell) your bare feet. If you must take your shoes off, wear clean socks or comfy slippers. It’s not just a politeness issue either. Airplane floors can be disgusting, so cover up.

10. Watch for Conversation Cues

If you’re a friendly person, you may think you’re being nice by striking up a conversation with your neighbor. Not everyone wants to talk or make a new friend on a flight. Watch for clues that they’re interested in talking before you engage in a discussion. You could try a gentle hello, and if they are equally open, feel free to chat. If someone is clearly keeping to themselves (e.g., wearing headphones is a universal “do not talk to me” sign), leave them alone.

11. Don’t Be Too Loud

If you are having a conversation with your traveling partner or a new friend, keep the volume reasonable. You may find your conversation interesting, but the people you’re sharing a plane with may not. Be considerate and keep your volume conversational.

12. No Headphones, No Music

You would be surprised that this needs to be said, but if you don’t have headphones, don’t play music or a video on your device. You may have amazing taste in music, but it’s not your place to be the sky DJ for the duration of the flight. If you need something to keep entertained, use the flight-provided headphones and watch a movie on the console.

13. Don’t Be Messy

Messy can mean many things. It can mean dirty or smelly, or it could mean being sloppy or getting drunk. Don’t be any of these. Be clean when you board the plane. Keep your area of the plane clean. Don’t get drunk. Feel free to enjoy an on-flight drink but keep it in control. Don’t be that person.

14. Take Precautions if You’re Feeling Sick

It used to be that if you weren’t feeling great before a flight, you could keep to yourself and make do. But, we’re still in a pandemic. If you’re showing symptoms, test and try to cancel or rework your flight. If you have to fly and have tested negative, wear a mask. Even if you don’t have COVID, you don’t want to get anyone else on the flight sick.

If you’re on the plane and feeling sick, try adjusting the vents to blow onto you, request a ginger ale, or try getting up and walking about the cabin. You can also talk to a flight attendant, who will do what they can to help you feel better. Nobody wants to use the airsickness bags, and they don’t want you to need it, either.

15. Don’t Leave Behind Trash

This last one should be self-explanatory, but when you’re getting off the plane, take your garbage with you. Otherwise, a flight attendant will have to clean it up. This takes away valuable time they could be preparing for the next flight.

What to Do if Someone is Breaking a Rule

If you see another passenger being a problem, you have options. If it’s a fairly minor thing, like your neighbor taking up too much space or talking too loudly, you can choose to ignore it or politely say something to them. If it’s a bigger problem (like a problematic neighbor) or the minor issue escalates, you can talk to a flight attendant. They may be able to help resolve the issue without it becoming worse. Whatever you do, try to keep it from turning into a full-blown issue.

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Flying, especially right now, can be very stressful. While some of these golden rules may seem trivial, they all help build a shared environment that can make the time spent together on the plane more bearable for everyone.