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A Guide to Flying Etiquette

Ulla Puggaard

Photo: Ulla Puggaard

"To do nothing that can either annoy or offend the sensibilities of others, sums up the principal rules for conduct under all circumstances—whether staying at home or traveling," wrote Emily Post in her 1922 book, Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics and at Home. Back then, travel was conducted by luxuriously appointed steamship and sleeper car, and standards of behavior were high. Post's section on travel even offered advice on how to greet royalty.

Times change. Crowned heads are rarely encountered on the 12:44 from LAX to ORD. These days, air travel is often far from civilized. Moods are grim, tempers short. Bad behavior is rife.

Sometimes, very bad. How about the woman who insisted on flying with her 300-pound pet pig, which then ran amok in the cabin?The drunk who jumped up on the food service cart and squatted to relieve himself?Not to mention the passengers who grew so annoyed with a surly youth who kept storming about the cabin that they beat him to death.

Emily Post would not approve. So perhaps we can arrive at a common understanding of what constitutes appropriate behavior at 35,000 feet.

"It can be a horror show just trying to get on the plane," says Lisa Sciambra, a New York—based publicist. "You're waiting at the gate for your row to be called, and everyone's jammed up around the ticket-taker."

Chaos at the gate results from impatience, greed, and misunderstanding. Airlines don't make it clear enough that when they say, "Wait for your row to be called," they mean "Wait somewhere else, not crowded together up here." Long international flights are the worst, says David Erich, vice-president of customer service at British Airways. Five hundred people might be waiting together, many of them unfamiliar with either flying or the language. As one airline official notes, "In China and Russia, you open the door, and everyone tries to jump in."

Of course, it's up to the airlines to enforce the rules. American Airlines has responded to the challenge by overhauling its boarding procedure. Instead of asking passengers to get on by row number, the airline now assigns them to groups, based on their class of travel, their location on the plane, and whether they have a bulkhead seat. Perhaps because the added complexity confuses potential transgressors, passengers have been more apt to do as they're told. "The system's working well so far," says American spokesman Emilio Howell.

Old system or new, the more closely travelers follow instructions, the more quickly everyone will get on board and, ostensibly, the more quickly the plane will take off. And that's when the fun really starts.


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