Col­umns on on-board eti­quettes, ex­ec­u­tive lounges and in­ter­na­tional prop­erty in­vest­ments

The ques­tion of on-board eti­quette can lead to in­cen­di­ary de­bate


It was in the econ­omy cabin on a chock-full Air In­dia flight from Lon­don to Syd­ney via Bom­bay (yes, it was that long ago). A slightly sweet, acrid smell woke me from my un­com­fort­able slum­ber, slumped as I was in the seat, my head twisted awk­wardly, chin on col­lar­bone. Nose twitch­ing, I opened my eyes to re­veal brightly painted toe­nails off­set­ting lines of grime that stri­ated a bare foot po­si­tioned on my arm­rest mere inches from my face. The leg dis­ap­peared into the gap between my row’s seats, and turn­ing I saw an In­dian lady staring back placidly at me from the seat be­hind.

De­spite my ob­vi­ous re­vul­sion, point­ing and head-shak­ing, she made no move to ex­tri­cate her pun­gent ex­trem­ity, and even­tu­ally I called the flight at­ten­dant, who ex­plained that this was not per­mit­ted and in­structed the woman to re­move her foot. Un­for­tu­nately for me, she couldn’t seem to un­der­stand why this was nec­es­sary, was fu­ri­ous about it, and spent the fi­nal four hours of the flight spo­rad­i­cally kick­ing the back of my seat.

In the in­ter­ven­ing 30-plus years, air travel has grown mas­sively in vol­ume, and in many ways pas­sen­gers are more so­phis­ti­cated in their un­der­stand­ing of “cor­rect” be­hav­iour whilst in the close con­fines of a plane’s long metal tube.

And yet online fo­rums, din­ner par­ties and pubs are full of an­i­mated dis­cus­sions about who was right or wrong in this or that on-board sit­u­a­tion. There’s the old favourite on seat-back re­cline: should you warn the per­son be­hind when you are about to re­cline your seat, or wait un­til the meal is over and trays col­lected? (Per­son­ally I don’t warn, but do check that the tray has been taken and then re­cline my seat as slowly as pos­si­ble.)

Then there’s seat sprawl, when your footwell is in­vaded or el­bows jab your ribs (I is­sue a swift but po­lite re­buke); the ir­ri­tat­ing cir­cum­stance of friends/col­leagues re­serv­ing win­dow and aisle seats then talk­ing across a mid­dle seat pas­sen­ger (they re­ally should be will­ing to swap seats); and the tak­ing off of shoes when slip­pers are not avail­able and foot odour is a per­sonal prob­lem (a tricky is­sue… as is gen­eral body odour, both of which are un­in­ten­tional and can be largely out of the per­pe­tra­tor’s con­trol).

Another highly de­bated el­e­ment of coach class travel is arm­rest eti­quette – the ar­gu­ment be­ing that the mid­dle seat pas­sen­ger should have pref­er­en­tial ac­cess to both arm­rests on ei­ther side, since the aisle seat pas­sen­ger gets added leg-stretch­ing op­tions and the win­dow seat oc­cu­pier has the fuse­lage wall to lean against (this sounds gen­er­ally fair, but is un­likely to be en­force­able).

But it’s prob­a­bly con­trol of the win­dow shade – should it be up or down, and does the cus­tomer in the win­dow seat re­ally have full con­trol over its po­si­tion? – that leads to the most ar­gu­ments between pas­sen­gers. Adding fuel to the fire, I re­call a let­ter to this mag­a­zine com­plain­ing about the B787 Dream­liner’s fa­cil­ity to over­ride in­di­vid­ual win­dow shade func­tion – our re­sult­ing re­search showed that many air­line crews use it to darken the en­tire cabin straight af­ter a meal ser­vice, re­gard­less of the time of day out­side or at the des­ti­na­tion, or in­deed the com­plaints of pas­sen­gers who want to al­le­vi­ate jet lag by op­er­at­ing on “des­ti­na­tion time” from the mo­ment they board the plane (my per­sonal pref­er­ence).

One BTAP reader weighed in thus: “If there is sun­light out­side when it is day­light at the des­ti­na­tion, I open my blind to read and to help ad­just my time clock. [If a] crew mem­ber asks me to close it, I refuse. If another pas­sen­ger com­plains I in­vite him/her to use the eye­shades pro­vided by the air­line so both of us can com­fort­ably ex­er­cise our dif­fer­ent free­doms.”

The fact is that per­sonal space is at a pre­mium on a plane – es­pe­cially in econ­omy cab­ins. Al­most ev­ery­one ac­tively avoids on-board con­fronta­tion – but this opens the door for over­bear­ing, cal­cu­lat­ing or ag­gres­sive char­ac­ters to get what they want, even when it clearly goes against com­monly ac­cepted rules and prac­tice in shared pub­lic places. As I’ve learned over the years, stand­ing up to them can cre­ate a toxic at­mos­phere that lingers for the rest of the flight – un­wise in such a small space – so leav­ing the crew to rea­son with them is clearly the best course. Af­ter all, they are trained to deal with ir­ri­ta­ble idiots and self-serv­ing bul­lies… and no doubt they’ve seen it all be­fore.

Avoid­ing on-board con­fronta­tion opens the door for over­bear­ing or cal­cu­lat­ing char­ac­ters

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