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Travel Etiquette: How to Not Be Annoying on a Plane

May 1, 2014

(Photo: Thinkstock)

Our new etiquette series tackles those nagging questions that have always plagued you while traveling. This week, we take on manners in the air. Our expert? Erik Torkells—author of the Smart Traveler’s Passport, former editor in chief of Budget Travel, and all-around travel guru—who’s here to tell us right from wrong. And we’re happy to discover that good manners aren’t dead.  

Have your own etiquette dilemna? Tweet us at @yahootravel using the hashtag #Etiquette.

Help! The person in the seat next to mine is watching something dirty on his iPad. Can I ask him to stop? 

Erik: I assume you mean sexy-dirty and not a new TV show about people who clean pig pens for a living. The short answer is—no, and mind your own business. The long answer involves whether the sound is on (in which case, you may ask that he mute it), whether he is enjoying it too much, whether any minors can see it, whether the content is limited to consenting adults (human adults), and whether you recognize yourself from a misguided fling with an amateur cinematographer. For most of those cases, your best bet is to ask that he angle the screen away from you. Or ask the flight attendants if there’s another seat available. For any of the other scenarios mentioned, you should alert the authorities.

(Photo: Thinkstock)

My wife wants to get a note from our doctor saying our dog is an emotional-support animal—even though she isn’t—just so we don’t have to pay the fee when she flies.

Erik: Airlines are unparalleled when it comes to treating their customers shabbily, except on this one issue. According to a recent New York Times article, they’re so wary of running afoul of the Americans with Disabilities Act that they’re letting passengers with emotional-support dogs get away with all sorts of things. (Meanwhile, travelers who pay the normal pet rate are charged an arm and a leg.) I imagine we all support the rights of people who truly need their dogs to get through a flight. But do we not feel for people who are allergic to animals? Do we not agree that convenience is a poor excuse for unethical behavior? Do we not worry that pretending to need an emotional-support dog might lead—in the way things often work out—to actually needing one? Let me put it another way: Would you pretend to need a wheelchair just so you could skip the line at airport security? (We’ll address that question at another time.)

(Photo: David Goldman/AP)

The guy behind me at airport security got annoyed when I waited to make sure my carry-on was in the X-ray machine. He said he’d push my bag in for me. For all I know he was a thief—which is what I told him (and which annoyed him even more). Should I have handled it differently?

Erik: I’ve never understood the need to personally see one’s bin into the machine (crime is nearly nonexistent at airports). And while I’m sympathetic to the gentleman’s urgency, if he didn’t offer in a polite, helpful way, then I’m entirely on your side. Etiquette is all about changing other people’s behavior without getting them upset. That said, just because he was schmucky—something we’re all prone to encounter at airport security—doesn’t mean you can’t take it as an opportunity to hone your own etiquette skills. Assuming you weren’t running late, you might have called his bluff: “Oh, are you late for your plane? Why don’t you go ahead of me?” Or you could have replied, “How kind of you! Really, I don’t mind waiting,” and then turned back around, as if you didn’t even notice his pushiness. Sometimes the smartest response is to act a little ignorant.

The people boarding ahead of me put their bags in the space above my seat, even though their seats were several aisles further down. I thought that space was mine.

Erik: Years ago, it was. These days, there isn’t enough overhead space for all the carry-on bags, because (a) flights are generally packed, and (b) fewer people want to check bags, what with all the fees, hassle, and wait. As you walk down the aisle, you should be looking ahead to your seat to see if there’s space above it; if there is, your bag should go there. If not, use the space directly across from your seat. If there’s no room there, stuff it anywhere you can find—and remind anyone who complains about the early bird getting the worm.

(Photo: Thinkstock)

Is it acceptable to go barefoot on an airplane?

Erik: Sitting for a long time, especially in the air, makes your feet swell. (The more attractive your shoes, alas, the more likely the problem.) And removing your shoes can feel delightful, like you’re relaxing at home instead of wedged into the veal crate that is coach class. While I would like to insist that everyone keep his or her shoes on, I know that’s a losing battle, and I must admit: I have felt the temptation myself. It’s sort of like—how to put this delicately?—picking your nose. Certain behavior may not be acceptable, but if no one sees it or is harmed, then it arguably never happened. You must, however, take into consideration whether your feet stink—and not like a delicious French cheese. Your own nose is not the most reliable judge, so consult a friend or think about these questions: How old are your shoes? How much have you walked? And then do your best to hide your unshod feet from everyone. And for Pete’s sake, keep your bare feet off the seatback in front of you!

(Photo: Oriolus / Flickr)