The etiquette of crowded flying

By A. Pawlowski, CNNPublished 17th November 2011
Lots of us will be flying in the next few weeks to see family and friends for Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Ladies and gentlemen, pack your bags and a lot of patience: It's time for holiday travel, and there's no telling what you might encounter out there.
Take my recent flight to Boston. I had survived all the usual annoyances of flying -- the chaotic boarding, the epic struggle for carry-on space, the inconsolable baby a few rows down -- but the tapping on my head was a new one.
The passenger behind me was really into the touch screen seatback entertainment unit, pressing and poking the monitor (and my headrest) with a vengeance.
I thought it would stop after a couple of minutes -- enough time to choose a movie -- but this turned out to be a marathon tapping session. The flier was apparently engrossed in a game.
Ah, air travel.
Lots of us will be enduring it in the next few weeks to see family and friends for Thanksgiving and Christmas, already dreading the crowds, the hassles and the traumatic experiences to come.
"Flying is like being on an episode of 'Survivor' these days. You have to be tough," said Heather Poole, who has worked as a flight attendant for a major U.S. airline for 16 years and is the author of the upcoming book "Cruising Attitude."
Add potential weather delays, the start of the flu season and passengers bringing even more stuff on board during the holidays, and you've got the formula for extra aggravation.
"Flying has gotten really difficult for the majority of us, unless you're in one of those lie-flat beds and drinking that fancy champagne," said Rene Foss, another veteran flight attendant and author of "Around the World in a Bad Mood!"
With that in mind, we asked Poole and Foss to weigh in on some common etiquette dilemmas of crowded air travel.
Should you recline your seat?
With legroom already limited, many fliers are furious when the person in front of them reclines. But others believe that reclining is a function of the seat they paid for, so it's their right to push that little button on the arm rest.
Both Poole and Foss said passengers should be able to lean back if they want to but urged fliers to be considerate.
"Reclining seats cause more problems on the airplane than anything else, but you are allowed to recline. I would say if you're going to recline, do so slowly," Poole said.
She advised passengers who are extremely uncomfortable to speak up and politely ask the person in front of them to return the seat to the upright position.
"These little situations just escalate when they don't need to. ... But people just start with the evil glare and then the knees in the seatback, and that's not the way to get what you want."
Foss said reclining usually causes a domino effect on the plane: When one person does it, the passenger behind him will also lean back, and so on.
The carry-on madness
Brace yourself for winter coats and bulky presents competing with bags for precious overhead bin space.
"It is hard to accommodate all these things, particularly around the holidays," Foss said.
"You've got your normal suitcases, and then you've got grandma's punch bowl in a box ... and the down coat that is as big as a couch -- it's like a sleeping bag, almost. When you have a full flight and everybody's got something like that, it's very difficult."
Ship your presents, don't bring them on the plane, urged Poole, who once had to deal with giant toy fire trucks a passenger brought on board around Christmas.
Travel light or check your bags, both flight attendants advised. And if you do bring a carry-on, don't expect it to ride nearby.
"People want to find a bin right over their seat, and that's usually not going to happen, and if it does happen, you just consider yourself lucky," Poole said.
It may also be worth it to pay the early boarding fee some airlines offer in order to get to the bins first, Foss added.
Who gets the armrest?
Poole recently blogged about a passenger who was called an "elbow assaulter" by a woman who sat next to him and apparently became upset when he accidentally touched her shoulder with his elbow.
There is no rule about who gets the armrest, but both Poole and Foss said travelers in the middle seat should get dibs because they can't lean into the aisle or rest against the window.
No matter where you sit, be prepared to make some contact with the passenger next to you, because the armrest is shared space, Poole said.
"Passengers can be so mean to each other. I wish people had more empathy," she added.
Crying babies
There's really very little you can do about infants crying, Foss said. A plane is public transportation, so there will probably be crying babies on board.
"People need to anticipate that that's probably going to happen and have a plan. I like to use earplugs. I always have them. And I have seen a lot more people use noise-reduction headphones," she said.
Poole urged parents to bring along toys to distract kids -- she's amazed at how many families bring absolutely nothing to keep little ones occupied -- and to always attempt to quiet a screaming child.
"It's not the babies that bother people; it's the parents who don't try to do anything," Poole said.
Tapping too hard on the headrest entertainment unit
This is a new entry in the list of on-board annoyances, Poole said.
If you are on a plane that has displays in the headrests, be aware that pressing too hard on the screen can disturb the passenger in front of you. If you are the person who is affected by a shaking headrest, speak up politely.
That's exactly what I did to stop the marathon tapping session behind me on my recent flight. Turns out the flier had no idea that poking a headrest display for a long time might be bothersome to anyone.
Ah, air travel.