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Man was not meant to fly. but because we have an inherent urge to go places and see things we cram ourselves into metal tubes and hurtle through the air to our next destination. Upward, and onward! And, while some say that the journey is part of the adventure, sharing a finite space with 500 other passengers is bound to lead to some complications.

Would it not be great then, if instead of (or along with) that dog-eared, never-read safety brochure that hides conspicuously behind your in-flight magazine, we all got a passengers’ guide to aircraft etiquette: the do’s and don’ts of life six miles high. For the sake of my sanity, and hopefully yours, I have taken some time to put such a guide together.

1. Be inclined to recline

Some people are opposed to incessant recliners, but the fact is: aeroplane seats are made to recline, so use it. It’s probably the only smidgen of comfort you’re going to get while cooped up with the hotchpotch of farting, noisy, smelly travellers. Having said that, I have, more than once, been hit in the face with my TV screen and then been forced to stare angrily at the scalp of the person in front of me (I approach confrontation passive-aggressively) for the duration of the flight. To avoid this, do a courteous little look round and let the person behind you know that you will be reclining. If you’re not a fan of eye contact, recline slowly while making beeping noises, much like a garbage truck backing up to a bin, they’ll get the message.

Also, just because you’re eating and have a screen in front of you that doesn’t automatically make it a ‘TV dinner’. So straighten up at meal times, you’ll also make less of a mess.

2. The wee shuffle

This one is tricky, and can be fun to watch. Everyone needs to pee. If you’re on a 16-hour flight, you’ll need to go at least once. Sure, you can try get the aisle seat, but there are not enough aisle seats for everyone (as with armrests, but we’ll get to that). So there are a few options. Do you wake the person next to you up? Do you hold it in and hope they wake up soon? Do you not drink anything for the whole flight and disembark looking like a sun-dried tomato? Do you wee in a bottle and hope nobody mistakes it for juice?

Or do you do the inglorious wee shuffle/climb over thingy? Which begs another question. How do you climb over? Do you go ass to face? Do you go crotch to face? The former might have you looking like an amateur lap dancer at an old-age home and with the latter you run the risk of having your neighbour wake up to a Harvey Keitel-inspired full frontal. The choice is yours.

One rule stands firm though: it is not OK to crap in a plastic cup.

3. Must we talk about it?

We love telling people our holiday stories. For some of us it’s the reason we go on holiday. But, occasionally (and by occasionally I mean on an aeroplane) it’s advisable to keep it in until you get home. Besides reaching #thatawkwardmoment where you start a conversation in hour one, and then realise that you still have 15 more hours to divulge your entire life story, you’re also wasting good material on people who don’t really give a damn. This is especially true for the newly converted hippie who, through a revelation of turbans, has just ‘found themselves’ on their last trip to India. Well done. I just ‘found myself’ a cool movie where Bruce Willis blows stuff up. Good bye.

4. The young and the restless

If you can’t afford first class (and let’s be honest, if you’ve read this far, you can’t) then flying with screaming / kicking / vomiting children is a reality. It is also justification enough for birth control. There are, however, things that can be done to help the situation. Babies cry because they don’t know how to deal with pressure changes: there is medicine for this, use it. Alternatively, start yawning, it’s contagious, like herpes, except in a good way. If you yawn in front of your child chances are they’ll do it too. Problem solved.

Side note: children who kick the seat in front of them or pull on the headrest forfeit their right to believe in Santa Claus. You are allowed to turn around and tell them where their presents really come from and that their chimney hasn’t been used since the cold war.

5. The armrest (aka no man’s land)

I don’t know if this is a cruel joke, simple aeroplane economics or a long-running experiment in human dynamics, but the simple fact is that there are not equal parts armrests to arms. So, I propose we don’t call them armrests at all but rather ‘human being dividers’ that, given the opportunity, you may lean on if you want. While common courtesy would be to let the middle person have both armrests, seeing as they came awfully short during the seat-booking phase, the truth is that the armrest battle is a ruthless free for all.

Tips on how to win the armrest battle:

  • Mention the rare skin disease you picked up while hiking in the Amazon rain forest.
  • Carry spare bandages and wrap up both arms before boarding and then mumble about the pain (this is also a good tip to get other people to carry your bags).
  • Fill your mouth with water and then pretend to throw up in an airsick bag. Nobody wants shrapnel from round two. Arms will be hastily removed.

6. Use it or loos it

The best way to approach the toilet in an aeroplane is to treat it like the Japanese did Pearl Harbour. Get in, drop your bombs, get out. Fight the urge to spend an inordinate amount of time ‘hanging out’ and pushing all the buttons just to see what they do, just because you don’t want to go back to your seat. Also, on a matter of safety, don’t flush while still sitting on the bowl. I’ve heard that it will suck your bum off, but don’t quote me on that.

7. Don’t get juiced, Bruce

If it helps you sleep, then by all means knock a few drinks back. But honestly, this is not the sixties and there is no way you’re going to turn the whole cabin into a mile-high karaoke bar with mini shots, so why even start? Actually, go ahead. I’m willing to bet that no sooner than you’ve started belting out your rendition of Travolta’s Night Fever (replacing ‘night’ with ‘cabin’ for extra effect), than you get tazered by the incognito air marshall sitting behind you. Bet you didn’t even know he was there. That’s why it’s called incognito.

8. The great shoe debate

Shoes can be taken off during a flight. There, I said it. However, and this is a BIG however, if your feet smell, you have weird toes or are carrying jungle fungi then please leave them on. Also, when going to the lavatory you should put your shoes back on, this is not a rule, more a point of hygiene. Unless you like standing in wee, in which case you’re probably also the person who has been in there playing with all the buttons.

9. Smells like

A little preparation will go a long way in the instance of smells on a plane. Have a shower before you leave home. Sometimes you can’t, that’s understandable, but try not to be the person who smells like Shaka Zulu’s loin cloth after a stick fight. Also, just deodorising over BO (body odour) often just makes it worse.

Things not to eat on an aeroplane:

  • Egg mayonnaise sarmies
  • Bananas
  • Lentils or beans (apply the two-day-in-advance rule here)

10. Exit strategy

OK, what’s the rush here? To be the first at the luggage carousel? Perhaps you have a connecting flight, in which case let the flight attendant know and they will probably make an arrangement for you. Otherwise, exit one at a time, row by row, it will cost you an extra 10 minutes at most. Avoid standing too early or you will end up in a similar situation to the person doing the wee shuffle (point no.2). I have also noticed a highly disturbing trend of people clapping when the plane lands. Why? It’s almost as if you weren’t expecting it to land, which scares me a little. Why am I sitting in a plane with a group of people who consider landing a bonus?


They don’t call it cattle class for nothing, you paid to get from one point to the other and not necessarily for optimum comfort. You’re in a small space with a mix of people and you cannot expect everyone to behave the same as you. Common sense goes a long way, and so does being polite. Having said that, if you have any strange aeroplane anecdotes or etiquette rules to add, leave them below. Your moooove.

Related: How not to get a free upgrage


25 Responses to “The passenger’s guide to aircraft etiquette”

  1. Richard Pearce

    Tyson, Brilliant. A much needed and well written article.
    A few points:
    Mints? It’s a good idea but airplane companies are far too stressed over the weight of the aircraft already. You might think those drastic reductions in meal sizes had something to do with the recession…Think again, it’s all about weight. It’s not ridiculous to say that they’ll be slightly more than pressed to carry on a bag of mints…is it?
    (The weight theory here obviously does not count for baggage officials gooi-ing bags of drugs into the hold in South America, which happens. often.)

    In the glory days of flying in the 50’s, flight-attendants were the bill-board type, classic sweet young lasses who would do anything to ensure the comfort of their passengers. These days, it is a stretch to even imagine that they would care about you having to catch a connecting flight. As far as they’re concerned, everyone is catching a connecting flight. And they’re far to stressed about having to ward off the ‘cattle class’ passengers from exiting the plane first. First class passengers and unaccompanied minors get the deal here. If you really want to exit the plane first, either become a millionaire or forge a few certificates and pose as an unaccompanied minor (essential to carry a teddy-bear and a large, news-paper sized colouring book).

  2. Jordi Casinos

    You almost made me cry. Problem was, out of fun, or despair. Preferred keep the tears just in case…

    I remember a specially eventful flight to Cancun, the flight attendants and even the pilot repeated so many times that it wasn’t permitted to smoke on board that I almost took the habit.

    All you mention is true, I amaze at the fact that when putting 500 bodies in the same flying box nothing rarely happens like:

    – passenger fist fights
    – emergency exit door being open (my theory is that the pilot has to activate it first)
    – crew fights
    – wild cat crew strikes
    and many more social disasters.

  3. Ulrike

    Fantastic stuff Tyson, read this in the office, now i have everyone staring at me thinking i am a nutcase laughing at a computer screen!!

  4. Nicole Meyer

    This is hilarious! Please bring out a book….the way you write it will be one of those ‘can’t put down’ books – in other words a bestseller!

  5. Ken

    Nicely done. I have a 18 hour flight coming up in a couple of weeks, is it ok if I print a few copies of this and tape them to the mirror in the airplane bathrooms?

  6. Devon Concar

    An interesting insight into the writer’s airoplane antics. I’m almost certain that Tyson has spent many a minute pushing buttons in the toilet. I know that the weight issue is a problem, but I’ve always been frustrated with the fact that there’s not enough water after the 1st push to clean the soap off of your hands. Another tip for travellers is to travel with a sturdy pen to grip between your teeth and push while washing your hands…it works a dream, and also bring new meaning to the term ‘pen pushing’.

  7. Devlin Nightingale

    ” I’ve heard that it will suck your bum off, but don’t quote me on that.” <– This, I believe, is fact.

    Also, I was doing so well at keeping the laughter at bay, until you mentioned the kids getting denied their 'belief in Santa' privileges.

    Bravo, good sir, bravo!

  8. Andy Wassung

    Flip this is hilarious. Thank you so much or such a big and long laugh so early in the week! Same situation as Ulrike – colleagues are very unsure of what is going on behind this screen and will definitely find out. Brilliantly written (wipes tears)

  9. Desre vigoureux

    Freaking awesome! I had a good laugh because too much of it rings true to my own experiences 😀

  10. Vanessa

    I can’t sleep on planes (or not for long if I do), so I always try and get the aisle seat, and I tell my fellow inmates that if I’m asleep, they’re welcome to wake me up to get out or just clamber over me.

    And I have a feeling Mythbusters busted the toilet seat myth.

    I wish that show had existed when I was a child and first went on a plane – the sound of the toilet flushing sent me running & screaming up the plane to find my parents. Why don’t people tell children it’s loud!? How was I supposed to know a toilet sounds like that on a plane?!

  11. Simon

    Don’t forget those who slide in and out of their seats by grabbing the seat(s) in front. This has to be the ultimate in lack of consideration.

  12. Max

    To clap, is the Russian tradition, its the way of saying Thank you to the pilot and the crew.
    Please do your research before making up your own theories.

  13. Vivien

    Excellent article – had me laughing out loud. I am an elderly lady and small so I am viewed with glee as I walk up to the check-in as even if I have booked my favourite seat I get a 2 ton guy sitting next to me who needs at least one and a half seats. Ugh!


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