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A Guide to Flying Etiquette

Ulla Puggaard

Photo: Ulla Puggaard

Little things mean so much. Especially when you find yourself locked in a skirmish over the 24-square-inch piece of real estate that constitutes an armrest.

Why do people engage in such jockeying?Evolutionary biologists suggest that these micro—turf wars may be a legacy of our hunting-and-gathering past. "We're used to having a certain amount of space, and when we don't have it, that invasion of our territory seems to trigger some sort of defense reaction," says UCLA geneticist Jay Phelan, co-author of Mean Genes: From Sex to Money to Food: Taming Our Primal Instincts.

Phelan points out, however, that humans are uniquely equipped to transcend this instinctive behavior. How about this: If you're sitting in the aisle or window seat in a three-seat row, let the person in the middle have the two surrounding armrests. In, say, a five-seat row, the person in the very center would get the two armrests around him, while those to his right would get their right armrest, and those to his left would get their left.

Of course, it's one thing to set a good example and another to suggest to a hoarder that he might want to give an armrest up. As Judith Martin, a.k.a. Miss Manners, notes in Miss Manners' Guide to the Turn-of-the-Millennium, "Such engagements are only too likely to lead instead to a change of hostilities characterized by further rudeness." So it would be nice if someone could devise an official method of divvying up armrest space. "Maybe it could be assigned to you," muses Terry Riley, a business travel safety consultant, author of Travel Can Be Murder, and proprietor of Errtravel.com. "Or the airlines could charge a premium on each ticket, to have an armrest included."

Maybe we're better off just fighting over it.

Time was, air travel was an exciting novelty, a chance to meet fellow adventurers. Nowadays flying is just another part of life, and the risk of getting involved in a tedious interminable conversation has become a thing of dread. Indeed, it seems quite acceptable to ignore the existence of one's seatmates altogether.

"For me, flying is the only chance I have to spend six or eight hours uninterrupted. It's private time that I've come to value," says Harriet Baskas, author of Stuck at the Airport. "I sound grumpy, don't I?"


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