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A Guide to Flying Etiquette

Ulla Puggaard

Photo: Ulla Puggaard

Those who battle their way aboard early find an abundance of that precious commodity, overhead bin space, a gleaming expanse as ripe for exploitation as a Clinton-designated wildlife area. Late boarders are often left with no place for their bags. Chaos and trauma.

What's behind this malicious space-grabbing?"Many Americans aren't accustomed to public transport. They're used to being in their own private vehicle, in control of their space," theorizes Edward Hasbrouck, author of The Practical Nomad series of travel books. "When you crowd them in with other people, they panic and try to take charge, at the expense of those around them."

Unfortunately, if you're victimized by claim-jumpers you don't have much recourse. "You don't have the right to the space above your seat," says United Airlines spokesman Joe Hopkins. If the bins are overflowing, and you can't fit your bag under the seat in front of you, you'll have to hand it over to the flight attendant.

The airlines know that passengers loathe this. United and others have increased the size of bins on many planes, so each bin now fits four wheeled carry-ons instead of two. Airlines also note that they've improved the rate of lost and misplaced checked luggage so that fewer than one-half of one percent of passengers report problems.

If you really want to avoid the issue, just don't travel with so much stuff.

You've finally settled into your seat. Or have you?A fellow passenger turns up at your elbow, asking for a swap. It wouldn't be a problem, but the exchange always seems to mean a downgrade for you, from a cherished window or aisle into the cramped misery of a middle.

"I always book an aisle seat, because that's what I like," says Candace Kolander of the Association of Flight Attendants. "I don't think it's okay to expect me to give it up." Kolander believes that many people acquiesce out of embarrassment. "Passengers should realize they're not required to switch," she says. Especially if the reason is lame. "If it's a one-hour flight and a couple want to sit together, I think they can endure being apart." Sometimes, though, the request is legitimate. "If it's a mother wanting to sit with a child, then it's good etiquette to switch," she says.

Sometimes you might be the one wanting to switch, to escape the nightmare seatmate—drunk, sick, or worse. Airlines try not to board travelers in an offensive condition, but once Mr. or Ms. Wonderful is ensconced next to you, your options may be few. It wouldn't be good form to ask someone to switch with you, knowing that person would be put in a bad position. But you could enlist a flight attendant to move you to an empty seat elsewhere. "If another seat is available, of course we'll let you move," says British Airways' Erich. "But there are lots of times we can't. If the flight is full, then you're free to get off the plane if you want."


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