Plane Boarding Etiquette Featured

You know the story of Noah’s Ark? It’s the one where Noah was chosen by God to take a pair of every single creature on earth, some 1.9 gazillion of them, and shove them all into a floating box a fraction of the size of today’s ocean liners before the rest of the world was flooded due to out-of-control sin.

Plane Boarding Etiquette Noah's Ark
Boarding a plane is often less civilized than the story where the animals were loaded into the ark. Noah’s Ark, oil on canvas painting by Edward Hicks, 1846 Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Well, boarding an aircraft is similar, but it needs to be done in about 45 minutes. You, yourself, don’t have 45 minutes to board, but rather the entire plane – which averages about a few hundred; this comes out to mere seconds per person to board, stow their luggage overhead, and be facing forward with their seat belt fastened and smiling, before the plane can back away from the gate. Thus, there are some common sense and courteous plane boarding etiquette rules that should be followed to ensure punctuality.

Don’t crowd the gate

Everyone hangs around the gate, and as the time to board draws nigh, the crowd packs in more and more closely. However, you must remember to leave enough room to let the first passengers board. You might think that these are the premium class folks, but really it is always the families with small children and the passengers with disabilities. These people need extra room to get by, as there are often strollers and wheelchairs involved. They won’t call the next wave of people to enplane until these guys are situated, so let them through.

Don’t appear drunk

You may have went to the bar after passing through security as you waited for your flight to start boarding, but try not to look too inebriated. In the United States and many other places, it is the law that states that the gate agents can deny you entry aboard the flight if you look wasted. And if you get questioned, remain calm and respectful; you’ll definitely get denied if you’re rude.

Boarding is not the time to ask questions

If you want to inquire about upgrading your seat or changing so that you can sit with a friend or loved one, boarding is not the time to do it. You should have done it days in advance, or at least before boarding had started, at the check-in counter or with the gate agent. When they call your class up to board, it is not the time to ask – you blew it; this is the time to be efficient; show your ticket to be scanned and move into the jetway.

Pre-boarding is for people who need it

When the gate agents call pre-boarding, for those people with disabilities or small children or who generally need more time to get on and situated, it is not a time for you to try to justify some new excuse that will allow you to pre-board. A large family doesn’t all need to board during pre-boarding if there is only one child that necessitates the extra time (unless there is only one responsible adult in the group).

Don’t dally during boarding

Most passengers want the plane to depart on time, so you need to be efficient during boarding. Don’t pull out your tickets and passport at the last minute; you should always anticipate when it’s needed – and boarding is a time when they need to scan the ticket in. It’s quite annoying to all those behind a person who is searching their pockets to find that ticket they put away. Keep your ticket stub and passport handy and readily accessible until you’re in your seat, because often you might need to show the welcoming flight attendant upon stepping into the plane the ticket so that they can direct you to your seat. Also, this is a good time to take your jacket off, rather than waiting until you get to your seat row where less space and time are available to you.

Don’t clog the aisle

When you get to your seat row, don’t stand in the aisle and use it as your personal dressing room. Step into your seat row immediately to let others behind you through, unless you are certain that no one is behind you. Stay in your row to take off your coat and organize your bag; when you are ready, then step out quickly, pausing traffic for a much briefer period, to stow your luggage and bag in the overhead compartment.

One in the overhead bin

Each person is normally allotted one belonging in the overhead bin; don’t immediately get to your seat and throw your carry-on, camera bag, laptop case, purse, and jacket in there. Put your largest luggage in there; the rest of your items can be stored under the seat in front of you or in the seatback pocket. When everyone is boarded, you can check above to see if there’s room; if there is, go right ahead and put your second, third, and fourth items up there, but not before. Most people store their jackets up there, but the very fluid nature of the coat’s material makes it a perfect last-minute stow up in the bin; it can conform to fit into and around the luggage in an already-packed compartment, but it impedes other bags when you store it up there first in a balled-up form.

Stow forward, never behind

On the majority of aircraft, the boarding and deplaning door is located to the front of the craft (less so if you’re in first or business, but then this won’t apply to you). If you board the plane and get to your seat row only to realize that the overhead compartment is full, remember to stow your luggage in a bin to the front of your seat. When the plane lands and the pilot is ready to let everyone off, you’ll be hard pressed to get to a bin behind you, since all traffic is moving in the opposite direction for the door; it’s much easier to grab it a few rows ahead of you as you walk by towards the exit.

Speak up if there’s no room

If you are one of the last to board, and you find there’s no room, don’t delay in asking a flight attendant for assistance; that’s what they’re there for. They are intimately familiar with the craft, and are much more able to find a free space to store your bag. Also, in the case that they can’t find a spot and need to check it, that takes time, and it will help everyone to get this knocked out as quickly as possible so that the plane can taxi out on time.

Be on the lookout for your seatmates

If you are the first person in your seat row, chances are you will have a neighbor before boarding is completed. If you are in the aisle or middle seat, don’t tune out the world just yet; watch as people board and walk towards you to see if you get that silent nod that says that your seatmate needs to get by you. It’ll make things a lot smoother.

Sit in your assigned seat until the plane is fully boarded

If we sense a less-than-fully-booked flight, we tend to start peering around and claiming seats. However, it is annoying to find someone else in your seat, whatever the case is. If you want to move to another seat, wait until the plane’s doors close, and then head over to that seat, while also making sure that it’s alright with the flight attendant. Usually they’ll say yes.

Wait to use the restroom

You had all the time in the world before boarding to use the restroom, and once the plane gets up to a point where you’re allowed to remove your seatbelts and move about the cabin, you’ll have more time to do so. For the hour or so that is the boarding period and takeoff, don’t check out the lav. This clogs the aisle, and it’s difficult enough to have to pass someone in the aisle, let alone making your way back to your seat passing a dozen or more passengers who are coming at you. Hold it in.

Seatbelts on, cellulars off

You know that you’re gonna have to do it anyway, at least until the laws change for the electronics, so you might as well anticipate the rules and fasten your belt over your lap as soon as you settle into your seat. It’s courteous to your flight attendants, who will appreciate any help they can get. When and if they tell you to turn off your cellular phones or other electronic devices, do so without arguing. Oh, and make sure that when you fasten your seatbelt, it is over any blanket or jacket you might drape over yourself, so that they can see it and move on, rather than pausing by you to ensure this.

Wait to recline, don’t use the table

You might settle into your seat and want to make yourself comfortable for the next few hours, but don’t recline just yet. We all know that seats have to be in an upright position before the plane leaves, and the tray table on the seatback in front of you must be up and locked. If the flight crew has to tell you, it just adds to the time and inconvenience for them, and for you and everyone else by proxy.

Don’t grab the headrest

When it’s time to leave the plane, or even during the flight if you want to get up to go the the restroom or stretch, don’t grab the headrest of the seat in front of you as some sort of handle. It’s quite bothersome to the person in front of you to have their head jerked back when you grab it to support your weight, just to have it snapped forward when you let go. Use the grip on the overhead compartment or push up on the armrest, instead.

Middle guy trumps others for armrest dominance

There are four armrests in a row of three, and five in a row of four. If you are traveling in the aisle seat or the window seat, have pity on your seatmate who must (almost never by choice) sit in the middle. An unspoken but logical rule says that the middle guy should get the armrest, since they are walled in by a person on each side. Try sharing, if you can, but give it up to the middle guy if it comes down to that.

About the window shade

By virtue of being the closest passenger to it, the traveler at the window seat gets to control the window shade. However, you may want it up while your fellow seatmates want it down, or vice versa. It’s hard to make everybody happy unless you ask them outright. The thing to do here, if you are in the window seat, is to pick one; your seatmates can learn to adjust to the shade’s open or closed position, but it’ll annoy the hell out of them if you’re gonna be opening and closing it sporadically throughout the flight.

Wait your turn

Just as you must wait your turn when boarding at the gate, you need to also do so when the plane is ready to let everyone off. It’s become common nature for all 240 people to get up simultaneously at the exact instant the plane stops at the gate. But deplaning has nothing to do with anything your ticket say; it usually happens in a front-to-back manner. Allow all the people in the row in front of you to exit and grab their belongings before you try to do the same yourself, unless there is clear understanding that they require more time. If you need to pass someone, you can do so once you’re in the airport.

Need more time? Let others pass

If you feel that you need more time to situate yourself or retrieve all your belongings, don’t hold everyone up behind you while you do so. Stay in your seat row (allowing your seatmates by, if necessary), and step out when you are ready, never before.

Don’t linger

You might be traveling with friends, or perhaps you need to pause after exiting the plane to get things situated. However, don’t do so in the jetway or anywhere before you get to the actual airport; the jet way is only marginally less narrow than the aisle inside the plane’s cabin, so don’t block traffic by pausing there. You can wait for your friends or adjust your belongings at the end of the jetway inside the airport; pull over to the side – they won’t lose you.

Let’s Wrap It Up

That’s about it, I guess. Follow these rules, and you will be a good citizen of the sky (or at least at the airport). These are mostly etiquette standards which are governed by common sense, but we often disregard our refined manners during the chaos that often defines the boarding procedure – I know this, because I often, embarrassingly and hypocritically, find myself doing so, too.

For over a hundred more useful tips and advice gems on having an enjoyable flight, from prior to the flight, food, seating, and post-flight activities, check out Tips for an Enjoyable Flight Experience

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