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16 Rules That Every Kind, Smart and Compassionate Traveler Follows When They Fly

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American Airlines recently announced a campaign to encourage better etiquette and kindness between travelers. The thinking being: hey, if we can encourage our passengers to act a little bit less like animals, maybe they’ll hate flying less and be willing to pay a bit more for it. This is great thinking because passengers do act like animals, not just on American but on every airline, in every airport.

As someone who travels a lot for business—one month this year saw three separate business trips to different countries in Europe—I see it every time I fly. Given that people are rude, unaware and incredibly selfish, even a short flight may require all of one’s philosophical training to calmly endure and forgive, rather than seethe with rage and disgust.

Because American Airlines wouldn’t go far enough in terms of calling out certain behaviors, I will. Below is my list of rules and ethical guidelines for travel. I’ve written about this topic enough to know that people won’t agree with all of them, but then again, I’ve been doing this long enough to also know that the reasons for disagreeing will almost always be absurdly selfish ones. (Don’t believe me? Just watch for the comments).

But if everyone followed them…

1. A good traveler is quiet  Last week, I sat next to a woman singing along to her nine year old to songs she blasted from her iPhone speaker. Ma’am, you’re obnoxious and you’re raising your kid to be the same. What would it be like if everyone played music without headphones and sang during this flight? Right now, I am sitting next to two strangers who have been talking for the last two hours across the aisle on a late evening flight. I’ve been on flights where the person in the row in front turned around, sat backwards in their seat and chatted over the top of to their neighbor like Wilson from Home Improvement. Planes—and airports—are quiet zones (except for say 15 minutes after takeoff and the 15 minutes before landing). Talk to your spouse or your travel companion when you get to where you’re going. Leave the rest of us out of it. Plug in and tune out.

2. The middle of places is not a good place to stopThe second lane at the arrivals or departures road at the terminal. The packed and busy hallways. The doorway as you exit the jetway and re-enter the airport. The end of a moving walkway or the entrance to an escalator. These are bad places to stop. There are people behind you. They’re travelers, just like you—except they may have connections or a meeting they’re late for. Stopping means you are getting in their way. If you need to look at something, get your bearings, check something, wait for someone, just kindly step to the side. It will make everything flow more smoothly and it will also, you know, decrease collisions.

3. Crowding in chutes is for cows not for people  A few months ago, a flight I was onto Geneva was repeatedly delayed for mechanical and then weather issues—first, for fifteen minutes before we were to board, then for an hour, then for two hours, then for another thirty minutes and then finally, cancelled altogether. I watched with amazement as we walked away in disgust for the final time that some passengers had never left their spots in the boarding queue the entire time. They stood and sat there for close to four hours. Voluntarily! The airline had repeatedly told them to leave and go get something to eat. They even gave us vouchers! The only animal that so willingly stands and stares so blankly—often to its own physical peril—are cows. I know this, because I drove home from the airport and went straight home and fed ours. They even had the same look on their faces as the people I almost flew with.

4. Yelling at anyone says more about you than it does about them – Obviously air travel in the United States is an abysmal experience, defined by its utter unreliability and topped only by the airlines complete indifference to the customer experience. And yet…getting upset about this says more about you than it does about them. Yelling at some poor man or woman working the customer service desk for something they are not personally responsible for is just you raging at your impotence—it is not solving the problem. I say that not to criticize you, I’m saying that as a criticism of myself too. I’ve been there. It doesn’t make anything better. It won’t change the weather. It won’t get you your money back. Just deal with it.

5. Get on the plane quickly, get off the plane quickly—actually, do everything quickly – Look, you might have all the time in the world, but other people may not. They may have also been traveling for days and desperately want to get home. Dallying as you take your seat is holding up hundreds of people. Staying in your seat until the aisle clears and leisurely getting up and grabbing your bag—when you could have gotten it earlier while everyone else was standing around—is holding people up. Your case of the slows creates a ripple effect. It’s also rude. Take your time wherever you’re going—at the airport, act like you’re on someone else’s time…because you are (also, by the way, planes sitting on the runway is one of the most expensive costs incurred by an airline. If we could all turn planes around faster, they could sell more tickets and charge less for each one).

6. Only assholes recline their seats – When stuck in economy, and craving for a little more space, remember everyone else is stuck in economy too. Treat your fellow man with respect—don’t recline your seat. Yes, I know it is “allowed.” But so are a lot of things: You can push your seat way back in a restaurant. You can drive way slower than the speed limit. You can spend as much time as you like in the bathroom freshening up. But all these things come at a cost to other people, which is why an empathetic, aware human being doesn’t do them. We try to minimize our negative impact on other people (and we don’t justify selfish actions with ridiculous excuses like “It’s legal!” or “Everyone else does it” and “I don’t complain when they do it to me!”)

7. The middle seat gets both armrests – This is a simple math equation people. The aisle seat has its own armrest (and the benefits of being able to stand up and walk around easily). The window seat has its own armrest (and the wall to lean up against). If either of those seats also had title to half of the middle armrest then the person occupying that seat would only get two half-armrests and no other benefits.  Therefore, the fair perk of the middle seat is that they get both. If they feel like sharing, sure—go ahead (or ask them if they mind!). But only an entitled asshole takes.

8. If sitting in first class, you’re obligated to steal snacks for other people  Sometimes when I go to conferences, they’ll fly me first or business class. My wife comes with me, and we’ll usually just take turns splitting the nice ticket and save money by buying an economy ticket. Same goes if one of us is upgraded and the other isn’t. But this perk comes with a responsibility: To hook the other one up with as many snacks (and pajamas and earplugs and other swag) as possible.

9. Only children are allowed to pack pillows Look around you, the people you see in suits—they travel 20x more than you do. Do you see them bringing any part of their bed with them? Of course not—because it would be rude to take up that much space on the plane, because they don’t want to carry around anything extra and because they have pillows where they’re going. Arriving with a pillow at the airport—neck pillow but especially a full, normal bed pillow—should result in automatic revoking of pre-check status, and demotion in boarding priority, and a slap upside the head.

10. Passengers must help each other – If someone has trouble getting something into an overhead bin, help them. If someone drops something, pick it up. If you find something someone left behind, take a second to give it to an agent or to the lost and found. Little gestures matter. They say: I am man. I am you. We are in this together.

11. No one should buy anything from Cinnabon. Ever. – As I said, we’re all in this society thing together, and especially with Obamacare, we owe it to our fellow human beings to pass on eating 5,000 calorie gut busting meals (whether they’re from Panda Express or McDonalds or any other airport abomination) while we wait for our plane. In fact, if we all weighed a little less, flying would be cheaper, less cramped, and honestly, would probably smell better. Getting to this air travel nirvana will require better choices. Starting now.

12. Preboarding is for people who actually need it – I’m sorry ma’am, the cat you’re carrying in a baby bjorn (yes, I really saw this) does not entitle you to board first. In fact, you should board last and we should all get to hit you with rolled up in-flight magazines as you walk down the aisle. Preboarding for active duty military? As a society, we are deeply in their debt—letting them board a flight early does not count as repayment for their service and frankly, it’s an embarrassing charade for everyone involved. The point is: If we got rid of preboarding except in the rare cases where people actually needed it, we could just all board faster and be on our way.

13. This plane is not your house  A plane is a public place. You can be gross and rude at home…but not here, when we are trapped in a thin metal tube together. That means leave your shoes on (unless it’s some long international flight—in which case, socks). That means dressing somewhat appropriately. That means not carrying your belongings in a torn up paper grocery bag or manspreading your way into other people’s personal space. That means not putting your feet up armrests or bulkhead walls. That means asking your kids to behave. That means not get sloppy drunk. Do that shit when you get home.

14. Your TV is a touchscreen not a Whack-a-Mole  Television in the seatback in front of you is a modern marvel rivaled only by airline wifi and manned flight itself. The technology that goes into using the TV is equally impressive. More often than not airlines choose to make them touchscreens. The operative part of the word there is TOUCH. They are not “pushscreens” or “stabscreens” or “jaboverandoveragainscreens.” Yet inevitably I will look over and see some irritated passenger playing whack-a-mole with their touchscreen completely oblivious or unconcerned that there is a human being on the other side of that headrest who is being forced to endure the airplane equivalent of Chinese water torture or, perhaps more accurately, the adult version of having their seat back kicked by a 5-year old. Remember, in a confined place like an airplane there is almost no physical act you can make that does not in some way affect the people around you.

15. Until the technology improves, the honorable thing to do is to print your boarding pass before you go through security – I would personally love to live in a world where you could just pull your ticket up on your phone and breeze through security and the boarding agent. The reality is that we do not live in that world. “Can you try to zoom in for me sir?” “Oops, I think it turned when I tried to scan it.” “Sorry, I think your screen went dark.” Is there anywhere else in your life that you use QR codes? So why would you use them when 250 people are waiting in line behind you? Just print your pass. You’ll never waste battery life. You never hold up a line impotently touching your phone against the scanner over and over again from multiple angles. You’ll also have something to spit your gum out into. (And if you feel bad about printing, just recycle it in one of the bins when you land)

16. The place to wait for your gatechecked bag is against the opposite wall in a line  This is also a pretty simple matter of logic and geometry. If people line up on both sides of the jetway, it immediately becomes very crowded and hard for other passengers to pass through. If people line up on the same side that the door from the tarmac is on then only the first few folks are going to be able to see the bags when they come out (and what are the chances that the first people’s bags are going to magically arrive first). The only logical place for everyone to wait, then, is on the opposite side. This is not complicated. Stupidity is what makes it a mess.

I know that many of these rules seem basic. Some of them may seem pointlessly constraining. Well, that is the point. When Bill Walsh says that if allowed to individuals, like water, will gravitate towards lower ground—this is what he has in mind. Because the airline industry refuses to enforce any norms or condemn any behaviors, we’re left with anarchy. We’re left with selfish people making selfish choices that make an unpleasant experience even more unpleasant…even as the cost of that privilege goes up and up.

Enough. Be the change you want to see in the world. Hold yourself to a standard. Start with the ones listed above—and of course, if you have better, more considerate ones, please share. I’ll follow your lead. TC mark

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