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Is it OK to recline? Expert answers your biggest flying questions

From whether you should recline your seat to where to stow your luggage, an etiquette expert shares how to behave when flying.
Is it OK to recline? Expert answers your biggest flying questions
Posted at 2:34 PM, Nov 16, 2023

The holiday season is nearly upon us, meaning airports will soon be buzzing with millions of restless travelers.

But it's not just the long security lines or flight delays that can make flying home to the family or off to a holiday excursion more of a nightmare than a dream vacation. Sometimes the trip can take a turn for the worse simply because of other passengers acting in a way that makes you uncomfortable or even just downright annoyed, such as with seat reclining or armrest hogging, loud chewing or loud music.

And with this year gearing up to be a record-breaking travel season, those pesky people are bound to be in your face soon — and if you don't think these people exist, it might be because you're that person your seat neighbor is writing home about.

So what's the best way to mind your manners in the sky? National etiquette expert Diane Gottsman, owner of the Protocol School of Texas, told Scripps News some tips, starting from when you arrive at the airport.

When you should arrive at the airport

Before you even get to your plane, you'll have to encounter swaths of people: There's the ticket counter, TSA employees,  others waiting in the security line, and even those waiting in front of you to grab some coffee.

Each encounter could breed potential for stress, and Gottsman says to start off on the right foot, you need to get there when they say you should. That means if they say get there two hours ahead, you get there two hours ahead, maybe even earlier.

Gottsman says waiting until the last minute thinking it's going to all be alright can breed stress, so preparing ahead of time, including waking up a bit earlier, can help in the long run.

Then when you've arrived at the airport, it's important to bring your best attitude so that when you do encounter the likely long lines and delays, you're already a step ahead of the inevitable annoyance.

"In preparation, make sure that you've had breakfast, make sure that you have a snack. And when you go through TSA — again, no surprise that you may have to take your shoes off if you don't have some type of a global entry — just be prepared," Gottsman said.

SEE MORE: Secrets to painless holiday travel, whether you are flying or driving

Where to place your person and your luggage

We've all heard the flight attendant announcement saying something along the lines of, "We can't take off from the gate until everyone is in their seats," so don't be the person who delays it any further.

Gottsman said getting on the plane, stowing your luggage and finding your seat in a swift fashion can help the process go a lot more smoothly for everyone on board, including the crew.

"When you get on the flight, take your seat. This isn't the time to make conversation with the flight attendant or your new neighbors. It's about being respectful to everyone," Gottsman said.

That respect should also be apparent in how and where you settle your luggage.

If you're not being told to take the first available empty bin space, you should try to keep your luggage close to you, Gottsman says. That means don't put your suitcase above row two when you're in row 30.

And once you're ready to settle in, take note of how much space you're taking from the others in your row. More specifically, no one likes the middle seat, so be as courteous as you can when deciding who gets those middle armrests.

What if I want to trade seats to be next to my partner?

Say you're about to board the flight and you notice you and your significant other aren't seated next to each other. You think about how to ask a person to swap seats, potentially causing a bit of commotion on the plane, but decide it's better than not trying.

While Gottsman says that can be an option, the best bet is to simply book seats together in advance. If you're too late or the airline doesn't offer the option, such as Southwest, it's polite to only ask if it's an equal seat close to the same aisle, Gottsman says.

In other words, don't try to trade up for an aisle if you're in the middle six rows back.

"Again, it's all about preparation, planning, and using good judgment, good sense and being courteous," Gottsman said.

SEE MORE: Buckle up, holiday travel is predicted to reach record levels

To recline or not to recline?

It's tempting: That recline button on the armrest can mean a slightly more comfortable ride, perhaps making or breaking your chances of getting some shut eye. But the person behind you, particularly if they're tall, most likely doesn't care about your ability to sleep with a deeper seat.

In Gottsman's words, "Keep those seats up!"

She says to always look backwards and ask your backwards neighbor, "Do you mind?" But be prepared for them to answer no if their tray table is backing into their knees.

Don't be a Chatty Cathy when you get on board

Last week, a video went viral of a woman aboard a plane saying she had just been nominated for a Grammy and wanted to sing for her fellow passengers.

Speaking to a flight attendant, the woman, Bobbi Storm, said she wanted to continue singing because the rest of the plane was enjoying it, but the Delta employee quickly responded, "I'm not enjoying it, so I'm asking you, can you be quiet?"

The employee asked if Storm was "willing and able" to stop singing, and Storm responded, "I'm doing what the Lord is telling me to do." Then she continued singing.

Although you might also have a beautiful voice, Gottsman says to follow the instructions of the flight attendant and consider the number of people in close proximity.

"My suggestion is to always think about the people around you," Gottsman said. "It wasn't the right time or place, and she was noncompliant."

Speaking of the right time or place, the person next to you with their headphones in probably doesn't want to spark up a convo, so take the hint.

And if you're the one who is being spoken to against your will, Gottsman says there's a nice way to tell them to put a sock in it.

"You can say, 'If you would excuse me, I'm going to take this time to take a little nap,' or 'If you would excuse me, I'm going to take this time to catch up on my reading.' So, there are boundaries that have to be set," Gottsman said. "I think it's important to be polite, watch your tone of voice, but certainly if you want to rest or you want to be quiet for these moments, earbuds is the universal 'Please allow me to have some privacy.'"


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