Talk­ing about un­spo­ken rules of travel etiquette

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL -

Jacy Reese was just be­ing po­lite when he of­fered to switch air­line seats with a mother and her young son on a re­cent flight from Copen­hagen to Toronto. But as the old say­ing goes, no good deed goes un­pun­ished.

“I had pre­ordered a ve­gan en­tree,” re­mem­bers Reese, who works for a non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion in Ber­lin. “It went to my orig­i­nal seat. By the time I found out, the mother had al­ready eaten my meal.”

Les­son learned: Let a flight at­ten­dant know when you switch seats, par­tic­u­larly if you need a spe­cial meal.

Seat etiquette isn’t as easy as it looks. Con­sider, for ex­am­ple, the re­cent pas­sen­gers on a United Air­lines flight from Sydney to San Fran­cisco who had a con­ver­sa­tion over a pas­sen­ger seated in the same aisle.

The pas­sen­ger in the mid­dle seat didn’t take kindly to it, re­port­edly de­liv­ered a racist rant and ul­ti­mately forced the air­line to divert the flight to New Zealand.

The in­ci­dent raises the ques­tion: Is it ac­cept­able to hold a con­ver­sa­tion over some­one in a mid­dle seat?

“Yes and no,” says Mag­gie Old­ham, a New York-based etiquette coach. The con­ver­sa­tion must be brief. But if it’s any­thing longer than “a quick ex­change,” then no.

“The po­lite thing to do is for one of those pas­sen­gers to of­fer to trade seats with the pas­sen­ger in the mid­dle seat,” Old­ham says. “Even bet­ter if you ask the mid­dle-seater if they pre­fer the win­dow or the aisle and then ab­di­cate ac­cord­ingly.”

So tech­ni­cally, both the talk­ers and the ranter on that United flight were wrong. But that’s hardly the only seat etiquette ques­tion out there. Q: Should I lean back my seat in econ­omy class? A: No. Se­ri­ously, no. Even though you can the­o­ret­i­cally lean your seat back, most air­lines have re­moved so much room be­tween the seats that you’re al­most cer­tain to col­lide with a pas­sen­ger’s knee, lap­top com­puter or lap child. And that’s likely to pro­voke a con­fronta­tion. Q: Sorry, I paid for the seat and it’s mine to re­cline when­ever I want. Should I ask the pas­sen­ger be­hind me be­fore I do? A: Yes, that’s the least you can do. If you’re go­ing to lean, ask the pas­sen­ger be­hind you if it’s okay. “If you’re shy about talk­ing to your aft seat­mate, at least do them the cour­tesy of slowly re­clin­ing your seat, lest you up­set their lap­top and land that com­pli­men­tary soft drink all over their pants,” sug­gests Kath­leen Starmer, a former re­search sci­en­tist and fre­quent trav­eler who lives in San Jose. Q: What is seat sprawl, and how much is ac­cept­able? A: Seat sprawl hap­pens when a pas­sen­ger stretches, ex­tends or in­vades your per­sonal space with his or her legs, arms or head. How much is ac­cept­able? None. “Don’t sprawl onto your seat­mate’s ter­ri­tory,” says re­la­tion­ship ex­pert April Masini. “Bring a neck pil­low so you can be com­fort­able and avoid fall­ing onto their shoulders when you fall asleep, as the pil­lows tend to brace you away from neigh­bors.” If you’re a large pas­sen­ger, buy a sec­ond seat. Q: Whose arm­rest is it, any­way? A: Ob­vi­ously, the pas­sen­ger in the win­dow seat con­trols the win­dow arm­rest and the aisle seat con­trols the out­er­most arm­rest. But the mid­dle two arm­rests — ah, that’s not an easy one! The con­sen­sus is that it’s a shared space but that the mid­dle seat pas­sen­ger has some­thing close to the right of way. In other words, if you’re sit­ting in a win­dow or aisle seat, the mid­dle seat pas­sen­ger gets to put his arms down first. If there’s room left over, great. If not, it be­longs to the mid­dle seat pas­sen­ger. And one more thing, says Adeo­data Czink, a Toronto-based man­ners ex­pert, “Try to be nice about it.” Q: Shoes on or off ? A: Only you know the an­swer to this one. “We all know if our feet smell or not and need to base our de­ci­sion on that fact alone,” says Bill Sechter, a Seat­tle-based fre­quent trav­eler who founded a com­pany that de­signs workspaces. “If you know you have foot odor, by all means, leave your shoes on. If not, feel free to take them off, but re­mem­ber to place them out of the way of oth­ers get­ting in and out of your row.” One more thing: Al­ways wear socks. It’s just bet­ter for ev­ery­one. And you don’t want to end up on one of those pas­sen­ger-sham­ing web­sites. Q: Should I awaken a snor­ing seat mate? A: If the snor­ing is keep­ing you awake on an overnight flight, ab­so­lutely. But the bur­den is on the snorer. “If you know you have a snor­ing prob­lem, you may need to avoid sleep­ing,” says Maryanne Parker, an etiquette ex­pert from San Diego. The best ap­proach: Ask a flight at­ten­dant or con­duc­tor to help. You might be able to move to a dif­fer­ent seat. “If the pas­sen­ger him­self asks us if we can hear him snor­ing, you can be hon­est, but still po­lite,” she says. Q: Should I change my baby’s di­a­per on my seat? A: No. Go to the bath­room to change Ju­nior.

Speak­ing of kids, re­mem­ber Reese, the pas­sen­ger who lost his in-flight meal? Turns out there was one fi­nal les­son to be learned.

“I didn’t con­front the mother,” he says, “but men­tioned it to the flight at­ten­dant. I doubted that the mother would be in a sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tion again, so it didn’t seem worth both­er­ing her about it, but the flight at­ten­dant might.”

The flight at­ten­dant was ap­pre­cia­tive and of­fered him an ex­tra snack, as the flight was out of ve­gan meals. And now, Reese will al­ways re­mem­ber the value of avoid­ing a con­fronta­tion and be­ing dis­creet when one of th­ese un­writ­ten rules is vi­o­lated. El­liott is a con­sumer ad­vo­cate, jour­nal­ist and co-founder of the ad­vo­cacy group Trav­el­ers United. Email him at chris@el­


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