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Which passenger gets the armrest and when is it acceptable to recline your seat? Experts give their answers in our essential guide to plane etiquette

What is it about air travel that can turn even the most reasonable of people into creatures of supreme self-interest? This was best expressed in an image that went viral last week of a woman lounging with her trainer-clad feet propped up on the headrest of the seat in front.

Of course, lack of space, proximity to others and the frustration of a delayed arrival or departure are a challenge to civilised behaviour. But are there red lines we still shouldn’t cross?


It’s bad enough to put dirty shoes on the seat. ‘But an equal no-no is removing socks and shoes even when feet stay where they should be – on the floor,’ says etiquette consultant, author and former Debrett’s tutor Jo Bryant.

After all, who wants to look at horrible, gnarled trotters? Even if you keep your podiatrist on speed dial, it’s still the height of bad manners to sit or walk around the cabin in bare feet. 

An image that went viral last week shows a woman lounging with her trainer-clad feet propped up on the headrest of the seat in front during a Delta flight

For comfort, take a pair of slippers or flight socks in your hand luggage – ‘and never use the armrest as a footrest in between the seats in front of you, with toes poking through,’ says Bryant. 


Regard it as a divider rather than a battleground. The courteous response is to let middle-seat passengers use the armrests, since they are book-ended by fellow travellers. 

‘Otherwise, inch your way in by placing just your elbow on it which allows your neighbour to do the same,’ says etiquette expert and author William Hanson.


The cabin is not the place for sulphurous egg sandwiches, pungent citrus fruit or spicy curried salads. Opt for bland choices such as chocolate, crackers or soft fruits. For easy, packable stomach-fillers, protein bars are also a good bet.


Never invade your fellow passengers’ designated areas. No sprawling with your feet stretched under the seat of the person in front or throwing sweaters over the seat behind. Keep the area around you – small bags, magazines and all your other in-flight needs – as tidy as possible too. 

‘If the person next to you falls asleep and you either want to get up or they are drooping over, gently tap them. Under no circumstances must you attempt to clamber over them – you’ll wake them up and be left in an embarrassing straddle,’ says Hanson.


Travelling by air means fellow passengers are a captive audience to your personal habits. But keep your bodily grooming strictly to yourself. 

‘This is not the place to clip nails, tweeze eyebrows, spray on deodorant or do anything else which approximates to personal care,’ says Bryant. If you have to attend to any primping and pruning, do it in the washroom.


Unless you need to answer a call of nature, stay in your seat whenever the cabin crew are busy with the in-flight service. And be unwaveringly charming. As the saying goes ‘you win more wars with honey’. 

So, Bryant says, ‘be patient if things are slower than you like. Smile, offer a warm hello, take your seat and let them do their job.’ As you leave, take the time to thank them, too.

Even small children may struggle to negotiate their food when the seat in front has been tipped back, so try not to recline until food has been served 


Even small children may struggle to negotiate their food when the seat in front has been tipped back. ‘Be aware of those behind you, and don’t recline minutes after take-off. Wait until after the meal service, if possible, and only fully recline if you really need to do so.’ 

Remember that it is your prerogative to recline, so a quick glance with a tight-lipped smile to check the tray table isn’t down behind you is a polite gesture.


Hitting the tarmac is not a signal to immediately stand up or leapfrog over the heads of other equally tired, bored and impatient passengers. This is not the school bell. The doors aren’t even open yet. All you’re doing is shoving your derriere in the face of others who, sensibly, remain seated. 

‘Allow others to get things down from the lockers and filter off the plane row-by-row. And always help those who can’t reach the lockers easily,’ says Hanson. ‘If you’re so desperate for a swift exit, pay for a seat near the front.’

‘Allow others to get things down from the lockers and filter off the plane row-by-row. And always help those who can’t reach the lockers easily,’ says William Hanson

The advice is: Don’t rearrange other passengers’ bags to make room for your own


Avoid needlessly spreading out your stash of duty free in the overhead cabin space. And don’t rearrange other passengers’ bags to make room for your own. 

The courteous thing to do is place your carry-on bag sensibly making the best use of the overhead space and place any other extraneous bits – and what you need during the flight – under the seat in front of you.


You’ve bought and paid for your seat, because you love watching the world go by outside the plane window. So, should you swap with someone who has been separated from his or her child or partner? Frankly it’s a matter of choice and not obligation. 

Just as you should think twice before asking another passenger to switch seats. ‘And if you do, make sure it is a fair swap – for example, one aisle seat for another,’ says Hanson.


Some people like talking to perfect strangers on a flight. If you don’t want to have a natter, bury your head in a book, put on headphones (even if they aren’t switched on), close your eyes or respond monosyllabically but politely when asked a question. ‘Don’t be afraid to say, “I’m so sorry to be anti-social but I’m just going to shut my eyes/catch up on this book or film,”’ suggests Hanson.

… and here’s what really annoys cabin crew – by a former British Airways flight attendant 

FOLDING your coat and placing it in an empty overhead locker then closing it. Trust me. That space will be needed for other passengers’ bags.

SAYING: ‘You must love Venice/Dubrovnik/Barcelona,’ or wherever we’re going. Most days we don’t get off the plane before taking a new set of passengers home. So don’t rub it in.

WAITING till we get to you before asking indecisive children: ‘What do you want to drink?’ Parents who ask beforehand, tell us clearly, then let us move down the aisle fast are our favourites.

ORDERING from the in-flight menu then realising your wallet or purse is in the overhead locker. It’s a race to serve everyone as it is. Please don’t slow us down.

ASKING: ‘Will I make my connecting flight?’ Most days we can barely remember where we’re flying, let alone what time we’re due to land.

GETTING angry if we wake you on a night flight as we can’t see your seat-belt. It’s a legal requirement to check in turbulence. Announcements tell you to put seat-belts on top of blankets for a reason.

ASKING to look at something from the depths of the Duty Free trolley. Then not buying it.

MOANING about the meals. It really wasn’t us that made the salad so small. Or picked those microscopic packets of pretzels.

STANDING up before the fasten seat-belt sign has been turned off. We hate picking up the PA and telling everyone to stay seated – but we can be fired if we don’t.

SARCASTIC comments about delays when you get off the plane. Trust me, we want to get home or to our hotel just as much as you.

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