Lizzie Post, the great-great granddaughter of Emily Post, author, and co-host of The Awesome Etiquette Podcast, has agreed to weigh in on a few travel etiquette questions from a politesse perspective. We’ve covered airplane seat backs and reclining; now, to whom belongs those armrests?
People Eating Airline Food
Credit: (c) Peter Cade

In the era of the dwindling airplane seat size, when armrests are—like everything else on a plane—smaller, it’s certainly tempting to claim as much turf as possible, “Hunger Games”-style, once you board your flight. But who really deserves the armrests, particularly in a three-across seating situation? Here, Post weighs in from an etiquette standpoint.

Who gets which armrests on a plane?

“This is one of those [things]; it’s part of the chair but technically it’s part of both chairs. The truth of the matter is that everybody gets to use the armrest. I like to have my elbows really far back; if my elbow is really far back…there’s still a whole lot of armrest for somebody else to use. I’m a big fan of splitting a difference. [But] when it’s three seats or more, allow the people in the middle to have first go at those armrests. They don’t have the window to lean up against. They don’t have the aisle. It’s a nicety if you have an aisle or window seat to give the … armrest to the person in the seat next to you, who might not have quite as much space as you do.”

Would you address this right when you get on the flight?

“I probably wouldn’t talk about it; at the most, if their elbow was sort of in the middle or the front, I might say something like, ‘Do you mind if I put my elbow back here and share it?’ What I wouldn’t do is be like, “So, I have this GREAT idea…’”

What if the person in the window or aisle seat won’t cede the middle seat an armrest?

“I’m never a fan of bullying. I don’t think you need to start an elbow war in order to claim your territory. If I come across someone for whom it’s so important … I will not start a fight 35,000 feet above the ground.”

What if the person in the middle seat (or any seat) is elbowing you?

“Elbowing is a thing that people do in really close spaces. See if you can [address] it with words rather than getting physical. If you’re not encroaching on them at all, but they’re… staking their claim by putting their elbows out like chicken wings, that’s when I might say to the person ‘Just to reassure you, I don’t need the armrest at all so feel free to use it. I understand that the middle seat is tight.’ If they keep poking you, try, ‘Would you mind just being careful of your elbow? It seems to be poking me quite a bit.’”

What if that goes awry, and they flip out?

Once again, the flight attendant…immediately. You can always get up [and find one]. Rather than pushing the button, it might be best to go into these things without the other party present.

Anything else to avoid?

“If you’re sleeping, people might nudge your elbow off [the armrest]. Don’t do that to others! Don’t poke the bear; don’t poke the lion.”