The Middle Seat and Airplane Etiquette

seatsThe dreaded middle seat. No matter how hard you try to avoid it if you’re a frequent traveler, you’re bound to end up sitting in the middle seat on occasion. This past weekend my dad was in town for a visit and got stuck with a middle seat on his way here. In my life, there have been times when I’ve been happy to have a middle seat (or any open seat really) and times when it has made for a miserable trip. No matter which type of seat I end up with, I always practice proper etiquette. However, just what is proper etiquette when it comes to the middle seat or air travel in general? For me, whoever has the middle seat is entitled to both armrests. My seat of choice is a window seat and, even when typing on a laptop, I go out of my way to stay clear of the middle armrest. I also never use the seat in front of me as a handle to get up. Have you ever had the person behind you grab your seat as they get up? Suddenly you find your seat being pulled back and then as they let go, the seat springs forward and bops your head forward like a punching bag. Ughh

What are your rules of etiquette when it comes to the middle seat? Once you’ve tightened your seat-belt and stashed your carry-on, how do you practice proper etiquette on an airplane? We want to know. Please leave us a comment.

27 thoughts on “The Middle Seat and Airplane Etiquette

  • my only rule is give the person in the middle seat first dibs on the armrest. In return, the person in the middle seat must accept his or her fate and not try to type on a laptop, read the Globe (Herald is OK) or do anything else that makes the neighbors uncomfortable. Arm rest privileges can be revoked for such behavior.

  • I prefer the aisle seat. I agree that the middle seat is the “owner” of the armrests. I try to help the middle seat as much as possible – with their bags or with the flight attendent (i.e. their drink order).

    I also try to start a conversation – then respect if they don’t want to chat. Or make light conversation if they seem to want it. Helps the time go by faster.

  • Or worse, people who recline their seats during meals, I saw it happen to a fellow passenger once she got red wine spilled all over her and the person in front just looked blank when told, didn’t even apologize. Perhaps cabin staff should remind everybody about certain “rules” when they do their safety drill.

  • most people are pretty nice about it, and apologetic about bumping each other in a cramped environment.

    when i’m a middle seater on long-haul (from australia) i normally try and think about timing my bathroom trips before lights out so my neighbours dont wake up to an involuntary lapdance while i try to squirm past in the dark.

  • Middle seat in the middle row is awful. I always feel like whoever I have to pass to get to the toilets must feel persecuted! Who knows if this is so, but I just feel like a bother when I’m in that seat.

  • Yes, middle seat gets both arm rests but NOT part of my seat.

    Flight attendants should enforce a sit in the upright position for all during meal service.

    Window shades MUST BE UP during takeoff and landing. Enforce it. This is when most accidents occur and you need to be able to look out and see where you are, if there is fire, oil spill, something blocking the exit doors, etc. Also rescuers need to be able to look in.

    Don’t take a bath, shave, etc. in the restroom causing a 5 or more minute wait for those that have “to go”.

    Use the overhead by your seat not over someone elses and the same goes for under the seat in front of you. It belongs to the person sitting in the seat not someone else.

    Don’t use your cell phone once the door has closed and is it really that important for the person picking you up to know that you just landed. Wait 5 minutes until you are off the plane.

    Don’t watch your favorite porno movie on your laptop.

    Turn off the sound on your “game boy”, lower the sound on your personal head set and if you are traveling with children control them.

    Frank Slater, consultant to the Travel and Tourism Industry.

  • I hate the middle seat-i’m trapped, have no view, still have to climb over someone. The window is worse on the being trapped & climbing over people part but at least I’ve got a view & can prop myself up in the corner which can make things a wee more comfortable. But I’ll take it over being in the middle of the plane if I’m on a jumbo jet- cuz that big center row must feel even stuffier being surrounded by more people.

  • Great article, Rich! We agree, the armrests belong to the middle seat. And definitely no grabbing the seat in front of you to get up. Thanks to you and your readers for sharing these tips so folks are happy when they land in Nova Scotia. Much appreciated!

  • Don’t wake the person on the aisle when you have to go to the loo. Had this happen multiple times SYD-SFO and I did not have love for my fellow passengers.

  • Great post, unfortunately many see whatever seat they are in as a colony to “take over” whatever space they want.

    I prefer the aisle seat so I don’t have to do the dreaded “climb over” in the middle of the night to go to strech the legs or the bathroom, all northern hemisphere flights from Australia are so long.

    What about people who are large? I have suffered several long haul flights where big people have immediately put up the arm rests so they can fit into the narrow space. This effectively colonises my space that I have paid for and makes for a very unpleasant journey. I would love to see a post from you on this subject.

    Talk’N Tours

  • I think age has something to do with seat choice. I’m now 60+ and I become the quintessential grumpy old man if I don’t manage to wangle an aisle seat — at least when seated in economy, which isn’t all the time, fortunately. Anyway, once you’ve reached a point where you can’t go for 8+ hours without going to the loo at least three times, you realize that aisle’s are all-important. I used to love window seats, but the fascination with cloud formation and how land forms look from 37,000 feet has long since faded.

    As for etiquette on board, that only works in the West — and often not even there. I’m usually flying in S. Asia or the Middle East, where all semblance of manners disappears on entering an aircraft. Passengers lug on huge amounts of hand baggage — things like boom boxes in their packaging are not uncommon — and could care less if they hit the odd passenger’s head as they push their way down the aisle. And on landing, almost as soon as the wheels have touched the ground, you hear the clicks of seat belts being unfastened, and by the time the plane reaches the terminal a good third of them are already on their feet. Someone waking you because of a call of nature pales in comparison to actions which could potentially be life threatening.

    Then there is the issue of cleanliness. South Asians are notorious for not using any kind of deoderant, so a flight from Dubai to Dhaka or Chennai in the middle of the summer can be quite a fetid experience. At the other end of the scale are the ones with a little more money who use too much eau de cologne or perfume to cover up the olfactory offenses of their countrymen… There is really no winning on these flights.

    And to think I used to think flying was fun!!!

  • Time to think about airline etiquette over all I think! On a recent flight from Hong Kong to the UK, I had an awful seat kicker behind me! I turned round and expected some 6 foot tall bloke – instead it was a short woman who already had 2 seats to herself!

    Please be courteous and don’t kick the seat in front – or let your children do it – it is incredible rude!

  • Re: Jerry-Comment #17-the person in the middle seat must try to not type on their laptop. That must be the most inconsiderate thing I’ve read in ages. The person was put in the middle seat & now your rationale is they can’t be productive based on their seat assignment. What a joke…

  • I always allow the middle seat person full use of the armrests.

    I was recently redirected on a flight to San Francisco due to a delay. So, with this last minute change, only middle seats were open. The person in the aisle seat allowed me to use the arm rest. The person in window seat not only claimed the entire armrest, but also “spilled” his leg into my space. We were thigh to thigh. It was extremely awkward and uncomfortable. The more I tried to move away, the more his leg further encroached into my space. His leg was like a furnace, too. I tried to nonchalantly position the airline magazine between us. It only gave a temporary relief before Mr. Furnace Leg overcame the barrier and there was no escaping.

    So, with that experience, I might add that give the middle person some thigh room, too. 🙂

  • I used to love the window seat until they started filling planes up to the very last seat a few years back

    Did anyone mention children + airplane etiquette ? There is an entire post in itself. Worst case scenario? Children who have never been parented flying with said parents. i almost got in a tiff once over this type of situation!@#$%

  • I prefer the aisle seat, espcially if I have been drinking lots of booze on the plane, nothing worst than constantly asking someone to move so you can go for a pee.
    One of the most annoying things that can possible happen is when you have one of those dumb kids that keeps kicking the back of your chair, no matter how many times you tell them to wise up.

  • I would prefer the aisle seat but we cant always have it our way, my wife and I recently endured the trip from hell flying Qantas from Sydney to LA, we wound up with the window and middle seat (A,B) on a 747, seat C was occupied at the last minute by a fellow who would have been over 6ft tall and was very heavily built, for the first two hours of the flight he drunk himself into a stupor and became impossible to wake, coupled with the the seat in front of him being reclined to its full extent for virtually the entire trip we were effectively trapped for 10 hours, this was an exquisite kind of torture for me because I suffer from a gut condition that is normally manageable with reasonable access to a washroom and being able to walk around and stand for a bit, to say the least when he finally stumbled off to relieve himself I was in considerable pain but thank god he finally moved

  • Well, I just flew middle seat from Toronto to Calgary. Middle seat sucks, but make the best of it. However, Mr Aisle-Seat decided he was privy to his aisle room, the aisle for his one leg and under my seat for his other leg. I mean, really, Buddy! How rude!! Aisle gets aisle armrest, window gets window arm rest. The space under your seat is yours for stowable carry on or your feet, not your neighbors’. Please shower before you fly and consider wearing deoderant. No one will find your b.o. a pleasent smell. Parents, control your kids. Try to refrain from eating offensive-smelling food (bagels with herb and garlic cream cheese smell terrible in a confined space) and making a pig out of youself (food on your face and crumbs flying is offensive too! So is burping or gulping) Lastly, be aware that what is normal to you in food, behavior, smells, noises (bodily or electronic) may not be to someone else. Consideration can go a very long way!

  • oh for me, its just that when the meal is served, and this goes for the other window and isle seat as well, you should put up your seat without being told. often the rude traveler pretends to be oblivious until you get the air steward to tell them! It’s terrible when you cannot bend down to eat your food because the head of the seat in front of you is in your face. It should be automatic, please! Thank you:)

  • My mom used to solve this problem by taking with her two pieces of particle board about 2 feet by 3 feet and jamming them between the sides of her seat and the armrests. She got strange looks but no one could jam their elbows in her sides, and she was giving up her use of armrests entirely so no one could rightly complain.

  • As a large person I get tired of listening to people complain about sitting next to obese people who they feel are spilling into their personal space. I find the opposite. On several occasions I have purchased two seats only to find that the skinny person in the next seat over thinks there is an empty seat and piles all of their crap against me. Old newspapers, purses, books, laptops and outright garbage quickly fill up the space and they are quick to put up the arm rest so they to have more room.

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