7 Critical Rules for Maneuvering the Airplane Aisle

Sep 30, 2018

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If an airplane cabin were a battlefield, the aisles would be the trenches where most of the conflict takes place. After all, it’s where passengers all but wrestle for overhead bins, where toes are crushed by laden drink carts, and columns of bathroom goers are subjected to the equivalent of poison gas attacks every time the lavatory doors open. You thought Verdun was bad? Try 14 hours in 10-across economy on a crowded 777-300ER.

That’s why abiding by the etiquette of the airplane aisle is critical to ensuring you have a flight that ends in smiles, not tears. And because we want everyone to smile, we asked two experts how you should behave on aisle matters.

Mind Your Rear

If you’ve ever wondered, well, which direction to face when pushing past someone in the aisle, it turns out there’s a right answer. Before you even make it to the aisle, if you have a middle or window seat, you have to navigate possibly the single most awkward part of any flight: sidling out from your nook and deciding whether you’re going to do it with your derriere or your crotch inches from a complete stranger’s face.

Apparently, your crotch — not your butt — should be facing your seatmates as you squeeze past them.

“Always face the person rather than look away from the person you’re irritating,” Diane Gottsman, owner of The Protocol School of Texas, told TPG. “Try not to touch them, don’t use your hands to steady yourself on their knees. And you might have to gently let them know you’re passing so as not to get tangled up. Say, ‘Excuse me.'”

Trading Places

If you have an aisle seat and want to change to a window seat, or have a window or middle seat and want to change to an aisle seat, feel free to ask another passenger to trade seats. Politely. But don’t expect to hear a yes, especially if all you have in exchange is a middle seat.

If someone asks you to give up your aisle seat, you have no obligation to agree to the switch. Just tell them you prefer your aisle seat — there’s no need for you to go into detail or explain yourself.

Mind the Gap

The aisle isn’t your personal space. Don’t treat it like an extra storage pouch or an extended armrest. Keep your feet, hands, heads, bags and children out of the aisle, especially when the flight attendants are using it for a service. But also at all times, if possible.

“Passengers need to be conscious that we can’t see behind us, especially when we’re pulling the cart up,” said flight attendant Kelly Kincaid, who writes a comic about the job. “Please just make yourself a little smaller when we’re working in the aisle.”

Another major aisle faux pas, according to Kincaid? Blocking the walkway altogether.

“If you’re a passenger in an aisle seat and your significant other is in the opposite aisle seat and you’re sharing headphones and watching a movie together, you’ve just clotheslined everybody on the plane, and you’re probably not even aware of it,” she said.

(Photo by izusek / Getty Images.)
(Photo by izusek / Getty Images.)

Don’t Go Barefoot

Once again, don’t treat the aisle like you would your own yard. If you’ve taken your shoes off at your seat, put them on again before you get up.

“For the love of God, please wear shoes,” Kincaid said. “Whenever we see people going into the bathroom barefoot, we will make eye contact with each other and snicker and discuss how disgusting it is.”

So if you were wondering if the flight attendants were laughing at you, the answer is yes, they were.

Make Some Moves

Because the aisle is a shared area, you should feel comfortable getting up to walk around as needed.

“Unless you’re getting in the way of the flight attendants and aren’t walking up and down during turbulence and everybody else isn’t also doing it, you have to do what you’ve got to do,” Gottsman said. After all, no one wants to get a blood clot from staying immobile on a flight.

But there is such a thing as too much.

“Yeah, there is a point where it crosses a line,” Kincaid said. “If you’re blocking people who have to go to the bathroom, then it’s kind of like stopping your car in the middle of the road and getting out to stretch. At that point, you should just sit back down for a few minutes or something. If you have a really have a bad back . . . talk to the flight attendants and see if you can stretch in the galley. But keep in mind the galley’s sort of like our office, so always ask.”

And always, always look both ways before you get into the aisle.

“It’s like when you merge into traffic,” Kincaid said. “Look behind you to check for people. Then do your business and sit back down.”

Bathroom Breaks

If you’re waiting for the bathroom in a line that’s so long it snakes through the cabin, it’s not OK to plop yourself down in someone else’s seat while you wait. And try to consolidate the number of trips you make so as not to bother your seatmates too much. Besides that, and not leaning against other people’s seats, though, there’s not much else you can do, Gottsman said.

“Sometimes you just have to stand in the line, and the flight attendants will tell you if there’s a safety [concern],” she said.

The same goes for making your way back to your seat. Unless you’re on a plane that has overhead handholds, you’re probably going to have to use the headrests along the way to steady yourself if there’s turbulence. Just try to be respectful while you do it — and don’t be upset if you’re the one in a seat that someone else has to steady themselves against.

“It’s not the nicest thing for the person sitting there, but you’d rather have a hand next to your face than a whole body on top of you if something happens,” Kincaid said.

Mindless Chatter

One bizarre situation unique to flight attendants is when they’re in the middle of a meal service but can’t move forward, and the two aisle passengers right behind them are talking to each other.

“You can’t move away from where you’re standing, and these people are having a conversation at your butt,” Kincaid said. “It’s a really uncomfortable feeling. I would just ask people to stop their conversation until we’re past. It’s a really awkward feeling to have someone talking at your butt.”

The Great Escape

If you’ve been forced to store your luggage in an overhead bin way behind your seat and you absolutely have to make a tight connection as soon as you land, don’t wait until the last moment and rush to your stuff as soon as tires touch the tarmac.

Instead, well before landing, explain your predicament to the flight attendants, who may be able to find overhead space closer to your seat, in first class or in the closet. And if it’s really important to you and you don’t want to risk it?

“I suggest you check your bag to your final destination,” Kincaid said.

Featured image by Swell Media via Getty Images.

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