It's a jungle up there. Delays, overcrowding, and armrest jostling have made the polite traveler seem like an endangered species. Here, a code of in-flight conduct
Ulla Puggaard
| Credit: 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.

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."

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 "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?"

As a preemptive strike, Baskas recommends carrying a book and wearing headphones. "If you don't want to listen to music, plug in the headphones but turn down the volume," she says. Resolute indifference works, too. "If you are sitting for hour after hour doing nothing, your neighbor might address a few remarks to you," Emily Post wrote of steamship passengers. "If you receive them with any degree of enthusiasm, your response may be translated into a willingness to talk. But if you answer in the merest monosyllables, it should be taken to mean that you prefer to be left to your own diversions."

The Fortress of Solitude approach can have its drawbacks, however. "Sometimes you spend a transcontinental flight ignoring someone," Baskas says, "and it's only when you come in to land that you start talking, and realize that he was really interesting."

At last! The plane touches down, the seat belt lights go off, everyone jumps up. And rudeness has one last shining moment, as high-strung overachievers shove their way down the aisle, forcing aside more considerate passengers.

It's tempting to have a word with such boors, or maybe even throw a discreet hip check. But we should resist the urge, says the Skyrage Foundation's director Mike Sheffer. "If people are obviously trying to push to the front, getting in their way isn't worth it. Why ruin your day?"

If you're the one who needs to get off quickly—say, you need to make a tight connection—simply inform a flight attendant before the plane begins its final descent. He or she will generally try to find you a seat closer to the door.

In any event, playing linebacker won't do you any good, and will only add to the frustration that can turn an otherwise normal travel experience into the stuff of long therapy sessions. "People should learn to view their air journey not as some unpleasant chore that frames their trip, but as part of the trip itself," says Hasbrouck.

So be thoughtful, calm, and considerate. And always comply with FAA regulations.

Hankering for a bender with tiny booze bottles?Better hurry. In July, California senator Dianne Feinstein proposed legislation that would cut domestic-route passengers off after two alcoholic drinks. That, she hopes, will decrease the number of air rage incidents in the United States—currently 5,000 a year.

"Evidence suggests a majority of these incidents involve alcohol," Feinstein said. You might think the folks over at the Skyrage Foundation, which was founded to combat violent in-flight behavior, would be pretty pleased with the idea. But Mike Sheffer, the group's director, doubts a two-drink limit would be very effective in and of itself. "A lot of these people get on board the aircraft already drunk," he points out.

Effective or not, Feinstein's idea isn't new. Forty years ago, many airlines cut passengers off at two drinks, or limited service to a drink an hour. "Once deregulation kicked in," Sheffer says, "things got more competitive, and the alcohol started flowing."