Unspoken Airplane Etiquette Rules You Might Not Be Aware Of

Are you hopping on an airplane soon? Well, buckle up because flying can be an intense experience. With such limited space, maintaining a sense of order is crucial. Not only does it prevent safety hazards, but it also keeps passengers from going crazy mid-flight. But while some airplane rules are explicit, others are just common courtesy. Unfortunately, common courtesy isn't as common as we'd hope.

By the end of a long-haul flight, you're barely holding it together. If your seatmate suddenly does something rude — say, taking off their socks or clipping their fingernails — it might be the straw that breaks the camel's back. Because the second you board a plane, you've entered into an unwritten agreement with your fellow passengers. Did they not understand the contract, or is it pure audacity? 

And how should you respond? Do you give them a look of disgust or tackle the matter more directly? Perhaps you pride yourself on proper etiquette. Or, maybe you want to feel vindicated when someone else breaks the rules. Regardless of your motivation, smooth flights require a collective effort — and you don't want to be the one committing a flight faux pas. So before you board, let's review the unspoken airplane etiquette rules you might not be aware of.

Be courteous to flight attendants

Flight attendants are the service industry of the sky except they don't work for tips, and some of their guests can't wait to leave. You may be excited to reach your destination, but the journey there isn't always easy. And truthfully, flight attendants deal with grumpy, jet-lagged travelers all day long. The least you can do is show yours some basic human decency. Greet them upon boarding, thank them for their service, and always follow the rules. 

Customers often gloss over service industry staff or treat them with a certain degree of functionality. So, take a moment to acknowledge the flight attendants when boarding. A simple "hello" with eye contact will suffice but if you want to go the extra mile, bring treats like chocolates or candies to show them how much you care. A little token of appreciation can mean a lot to a flight attendant during a stressful workday.  

Also, don't make their job harder. In an interview with Yahoo! Travel, flight attendant and blogger Kara Mulder explained, "It always helps if passengers go to the aft galley if they want a glass of water or need to throw something away, instead of ringing the call bell." Flight attendants don't want to remind you of the rules either; stow your tray table before landing and don't get up when the fasten seatbelt sign is on. 

Stick to your assigned seat

We've all experienced that awkward moment when another passenger asks to swap seats. If you're in the middle, chances are you'll jump at the opportunity to upgrade. However, if they're offering a less desirable seat, it's your right to decline, but that doesn't make it any less awkward. Tammy Nelson experienced this firsthand. In a viral TikTok video, Nelson explained that a woman was already sitting in her window seat when she arrived. 

This stranger asked to swap to be next to her children, but Nelson refused, pointing out that "the kids looked like they were about 11 and 15. And the mom was in arms-reach of both of them from the middle seat in the row behind us." Although said mother complained throughout the flight, TikTok commenters defended Nelson. One noted, "You did the right thing. She should have booked the seats together, not assumed someone would switch."

There are some obvious exceptions to this rule. If someone is traveling with small children or has limited mobility, it's best to move. Sometimes, you have to take one for the team to ensure a smooth flight for all. 

Avoid making phone calls

On a plane, you're typically packed in like sardines. The last thing you want is to listen to your seatmate loudly chatting away for the duration of the flight. Cell phone usage isn't allowed once take-off begins, of course. However, there are always a few passengers who use every last minute leading up to take-off. They're finishing a business call or catching up with friends and family, giving you a front-row seat to their personal lives. But if they can survive a flight without a phone call, they can also survive the extra 30 minutes for boarding and disembarking.

As in-flight connectivity improves, this problem is becoming increasingly apparent. Some passengers are even taking phone calls or video chats mid-flight. However, the worst offenders are those using the speakerphone option, forcing us to listen to not just one but both sides of the conversation. If you must stay connected, stick to texting. And as soon as you step off the aircraft, put those earbuds in to make that burning phone call. 

The middle seat gets armrest priority

Are you an aisle or a window person? Whatever you are, you're not a middle-seat guy because, well, nobody is. It's the bottom barrel of airline seat selection with few obvious benefits. The only thing the middle seat has going for it is that the user has armrest priority. So, throw them this bone and let the middle seat have the use of both armrests. On the r/pettyrevenge subreddit, one user breaks it down for us: "The armrest rule. If you're in the middle seat, the armrests are yours. Period. The window seat gets a wall to lean on; the aisle seat gets all the legroom they could want." 

If you weren't aware of this rule and have been sitting by the window yet hogging the armrest, don't worry. Karma will find you. And if it doesn't, petty revenge might. The same Reddit user detailed their retaliation: "So I waited until she was definitely asleep, and then 'accidentally' kicked the charging cable that her phone was plugged into out of the charging outlet." We imagine she landed with little to no battery. If only she had followed the armrest rule.

The window seat manages the window

With great privilege comes great responsibility, and the window seat is in charge of window duty. It's at their discretion whether they want to shut or open it. However, it isn't merely about personal preference. There are several common courtesies to abide by too. For one, make sure the sun isn't blinding fellow passengers. 

One Reddit user had a clever hack to avoid this issue: "I purposefully book my window seats in the hopes of being out of the sun's way. West-East flights, [I always book my seat] facing north in the US. North-South flights, [I always book my seat] facing west in the morning and facing east in the afternoon/sunset."

Circadian rhythms also get entirely out of whack while flying. The only way to retain some sort of schedule is to allow darkness and light in at the appropriate times. This is why flight attendants ask to have windows up or down at certain hours of the day. And if you booked a window seat, it's your job to follow this rule.

Flights aren't for grooming

Simply put, flights aren't for grooming. Although it sounds obvious, you'd be surprised how many people routinely break this etiquette rule without even thinking twice about it. It's as if they forget they're in a public space, not their private bathroom. While we realize you tend to have loads of downtime on a plane, this is not the time or place for personal care — and most people would agree. In fact, USA Today reports that personal grooming was voted the number one worst airplane behavior in a Skyscanner survey. 

What does personal grooming encompass exactly? Everything from applying makeup to trimming your toenails. And if you've gone as far as painting your nails or trying out a new face mask, we're equally impressed and appalled at your audacity. To freshen up while traveling, head to the bathroom. Splashing water on your face or brushing your teeth are perfectly acceptable behaviors. But if you have a long layover, remember to respect airport etiquette as well. Don't go washing your hair or taking a bath in the sink.   

Don't be overly chatty

Are you a Chatty Cathy? If so, rein it in on airplanes. After all, solo travelers don't have a choice in who they sit next to, and your seatmates can't escape your small talk. If they're politely icing you out, take a hint and leave them alone. One-word responses and not asking questions in return are major signs that they're not interested.  

However, if you're on the receiving end of an unwanted conversation, there are some ways to politely avoid engaging. As Diane Gottsman, a leading etiquette expert at the Protocol School of Texas, advised, "Subtle signs like [putting] headphones on signal to other travelers that you are hoping to have some alone time," (via The Points Guy). The same goes for other anti-social props like an eye mask, laptop, or a book. 

When asked, "How do you avoid talking to people on planes?" Reddit users had several other helpful suggestions, including "Yawn and pretend to nap" and even the old classic, "Pretend you don't speak their language." But sometimes, honesty is the best approach. Politely tell your seatmate that you enjoy quiet time on the plane or are too tired to participate in a conversation. Ultimately, there's nothing wrong with not wanting to engage.

Avoid stinky foods and fragrances

Nobody can escape the smell of what you bring onboard, so avoid anything offensive. We realize this is tricky since airlines are generally serving less food than they used to. Chances are, you'll need to pack some in-flight snacks or maybe even a full meal. But keep in mind that pleasant foods like hamburgers and French fries can cause an overwhelming smell in such a small space. Your best bet is to opt for cold foods like apples, veggie sticks, or hummus and crackers. Avoid stinky cheeses, hard-boiled eggs, and anything fishy because a bad smell can take down an entire plane (theoretically speaking). 

Smells impact people differently, but certain foods are known to be stinky, including durian fruit. In 2018, the Jakarta Post reported that a Sriwijaya Air flight in Indonesia was delayed after a protest over the smell of durian. Although durian is not allowed on most flights, some airlines permit the fruit to be wrapped and stored in checked luggage. However, the durian was so pungent that passengers picked up on its scent, with some refusing to stay onboard. Eventually, the airline unloaded the stinky fruit despite being in accordance with flight regulations.

Fragrances can also be overpowering on a flight. Many individuals have adverse reactions to perfumes, colognes, and scented cosmetics. Keep the smelly stuff at home, or wait until you arrive at your destination to spray away. 

Keep your feet covered

One thing you should never do on an airplane is go barefoot. Airplanes are known to carry a whole host of germs and bacteria. Planes experience a high volume of passengers daily and aren't thoroughly cleaned between flights either. The fabric floor of your cabin is bound to have germs, not to mention crumbs and even the occasional shard of glass. And don't get us started on using the bathrooms without footwear (gross). 

Safety aside, bare feet can also be smelly or just plain unsightly. According to a KAYAK survey, 76% of travelers frown upon taking socks off on a flight, and over half discourage people from even removing their shoes. Regarding airplane etiquette, those surveyed also believed you should not be allowed to rest your feet on the seat in front of you either. A whopping 68% of travelers felt they should remain firmly planted on the ground. 

Keep your kids entertained

If you're traveling with little ones, you deserve an award. On long-haul flights, it's hard enough to keep yourself sane, let alone one, two, or even three children. Even if your kids are well-behaved, they still have basic needs and luggage like the rest of us and it's the parent's responsibility to keep all of this in check. The last thing you want is a rambunctious child getting out of their seat or crying out in boredom. To avoid this, you have to keep the little ones entertained.

While you might limit screen time at home, we'd throw this rule out the window on airplanes. Staying still for long periods goes against kids' nature. To keep them engaged without getting out of their seats, always come prepared. Airplane entertainment systems usually have a child's genre with TV shows and movies. However, we'd also travel with electronic games and kid-friendly devices. To balance out this screen time, bring books, well-organized toys, or art supplies.

Go easy on the booze

Vacations are exciting. When you pack your bags and head to the airport, you naturally want to start having fun ASAP. For some, that includes a celebratory toast or two. But while we all love a good time, you shouldn't let things get out of control. You'd be surprised how many people sneak mini alcohol bottles onto flights or go overboard with booze in the terminal or onboard. Drunk and disorderly conduct is no fun for your fellow passengers, and crew members can deny boarding or kick off anyone who appears intoxicated. 

Some people blame the altitude for their quick buzz. But it's a myth that people get drunk faster on a plane. In an Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine study, participants were given the same amount of alcohol at ground level and at a simulated altitude; the breathalyzer readings were the same for both. However, both the placebo and alcohol groups scored lower on performance tests at higher altitudes. So, while altitude doesn't technically make you drunker, it can make you feel slower or possibly even a little loopy.    

Time your bathroom breaks strategically

We've all been there: You're in the window seat but dying to use the restroom and spiraling about trying to figure out an exit strategy. Do you force your seatmates to move? And is it okay to wake them up if they're sleeping? While passengers in the aisle seat might not be thrilled, they must get up when asked. A KAYAK survey even showed that 64% of travelers felt it was okay to wake them up if necessary. After all, if you gotta go, you gotta go. 

Most people are understanding and will typically get up, no questions asked. That said, it's common courtesy to strategically time your bathroom breaks so you don't inconvenience others. If your neighbors are out of their seats, take the opportunity to use the bathroom or stretch your legs. It's also a good idea to go just after mealtime. Lights typically go out shortly after dinner, and people will begin to doze off. Even if you don't need to, consider it a preventative measure. A little foresight could save you a disaster, or some grumpy seatmates, down the line. 

Avoid conflict

You're tired, jet-lagged, and uncomfortable. Then, out of nowhere, your seatmate breaks a cardinal rule of airplane etiquette. It seems so offensive that it almost feels like a personal attack. Suddenly, you're wondering whether it makes more sense to shoot them a withering look of disapproval or to get up and address the issue head-on. If you can feel your blood beginning to boil over, exercise some restraint. That's not to say you shouldn't assert some boundaries, though.

If someone's seat is reclined during meal service, kindly ask them to raise it. If they refuse and things get heated, back off. On a crowded plane, the last thing you want is to start and/or escalate a conflict. Do your best to remain calm. Plug in those earphones, close your eyes, and turn the other cheek (literally). If their offense is truly unforgivable, let a flight attendant know. They're trained to deal with aggressive passengers, and can separate the dueling parties if needs be.

Think before you recline

Airplanes aren't exactly what you'd call spacious. When you sit down and buckle up, this is immediately apparent. Like most people, you probably get the urge to recline your seat, gaining an inch or so of extra space in the process. However, space on airplanes is a zero-sum game. As such, there's a time to recline and a time to refrain. 

Flights have an unspoken code of conduct, and part of that includes airplane seat reclining etiquette. Seats must be upright for takeoff and landing, and reclining might not be worth it at all on a short daytime flight. On the other hand, long-haul flights require more rest. And if you're craving some shut-eye, timing is everything. Avoid reclining during meal service or if the person behind you is enjoying a beverage. The last thing you'd want is to spill their coffee onto clothes they can't change out of. If so, resentment will brew faster than that fresh cup of Joe. 

Generally speaking, the best time to recline is when everyone else is. That said, a gentle warning goes a long way. Give those sitting behind you a heads-up before reclining so they can adjust as necessary. Because although it's your right to recline, proper airplane etiquette is all about respecting those around you.