Airport Etiquette: Lessons From Frequent Failures

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Airline travel has experienced a renaissance since the industry lull after 9/11. The growing pains of new security measures, the increase in air traffic, and industry consolidation seem to be sorting out after a mere fifteen years. That's my perspective as a flyer so frequent that they invented new rare materials to define my status. I think I'm at moon rock, which means I can ride shotgun if I want to.

Folks complain about the airlines, security, and other aspects of the airport experience. I'll lose readers here when I defend these professionals. These are good people in tough jobs, and while there are some things they could do better, I think the most effective way to improve air adventure is not fixing the airlines, flight attendants or TSA -- it is about fixing the flyer.

Some simple adjustments to each of our behaviors can greatly enhance the experience for all of us. Next time you are flying, think about these points, and how you can make my experience more pleasant.


Pre-demetalification. Would it be a bridge too far to clear our pockets and put away the phone and metal stuff before entering the security line? Do it after you pick up your boarding pass. Enter the line with nothing on your person, other than your ID and your boarding pass.

Liquids. We have been forced to sequester our liquids and gels into a little bag for about 15% of commercial aviation history. Why is it that at least once a month there's a person arguing with a TSA officer about why they need to bring a gallon of Simple Green, a piñata of pudding, or an economy vat of gumbo on a plane? While entertaining, it slows progress.

Penalty Phase. If TSA finds your Ginsu knife, pepper spray or pudding piñata you should have to exit the line, jettison the offending item and then get back in line. You also should have to wear a sticker that says, "No snacks for me" that you have to wear on the plane, forfeiting your bag of eight little pretzels.

On the Plane

Excess Words. Pre-boarding looks a lot like boarding. I'm not sure how I'd destroy a lavatory smoke detector without tampering with or dismantling it. I wonder if people would smoke on a plane if they didn't say we couldn't.

Stow It and Sit Down. There's one avenue into that tube of seats, and there's usually someone standing motionless in the middle of it during boarding. When entering your seat, it is not the time to stand in the aisle unloading a carry-on, looking for headphones or contemplating which book to sit with. Plan ahead. Move in like it is musical chairs and the music just stopped.

Claiming Territory. On airlines without seat assignments, some people insist on spreading their stuff out over several seats to deter others from sitting by them. That's just not right. Instead, put on a surgical mask, or an old-timey hockey goalie mask. You'll get plenty of space all to yourself.

Touch Screen, Not Punch Screen. Remember, the little screen in front of you responds well to the delicate tap of a fingertip. I'm not sure how many times I've felt the relentless pounding of a pointy digit mashing on-screen options, punching into the back of my brain.

A Plane is Not a Bar. The guy in front of me was coming unglued. Why? The flight attendant could not make him a Mai Tai. You are sitting in a chair at 35,000 feet. Don't expect a flight attendant to make you a Frozen Raspberry Margarita, a Buzzed Aldrin or damn Pink Squirrel.

Enjoy Dinner in the Airport. The gentleman next to me spoke a thick dialect I did not recognize. Once we reached cruising altitude he reached under his seat and produced what appeared to be a foil-covered football. He would unwrap it to reveal a whole cooked chicken, still warm and cured with a delightful bouquet of heavy garlic and exotic spices. The stink summoned his many children, who emerged from the seats around, all coalescing around the carcass, ripping off hunks of meat and shoving them into their mouths. The smell was pungent, and greasy little hands were repeatedly wiped clean on the fabric seats. While this band of savages was an extreme example, airport fast-food fare stinks too. The plane has a way of making McDonald's, BBQ, or anything smell just awful. Cinnabon -- delightful with diffusion, a puker upon cabin concentration.

Keep Your Shoes and Socks On. Over the last decade people have been increasingly comfortable to disrobe their feets once they hit the plane seat. The shoes and socks come off, heels rest comfortably on the creepy tweedy carpet, toes are fanned out wide and wiggled, airing off in the stale cabin breezes. More frequently I'm seeing naked dirty-bottomed feet on the cabin walls, seats, trays, and arm rests. Worse, my toenail clippers are usually confiscated at TSA, so I can't offer them to an adjacent traveler so they can snip the cliff off of El Capitan.

Let the Connectors Exit First. When the wheels touch the ground I check my connecting boarding pass only to see that I need to move from Gate D40 to A2 in ten minutes. I'm in seat 25D. If I exit the plane fast I can zip across that concourse, possibly making that connection, getting home, and saving a ton of hassle with unneeded rescheduling, hotels and Ubering.

But when the plane jerks to a stop and the arrival tone sounds, the cabin erupts with the clicking of seatbelt buckles, as the folks that shoved me out of the way to get onto the plane, now freeze in place in a race to stand between me and where I needed to be minutes ago.

So how can they make my experience better? Think about the folks that are in a hurry. If you arrive at your terminal destination, or are about to enjoy a long layover, stay in your seat until everyone else is off the plane. You're just going to stand in the aisle for five minutes, block the progress of those desperate to move, and at best you get to stand by baggage claim and have to stare at the nothing-go-round. Enjoy the comfy seat, stay on the plane, chill out with a Mai Tai. Let the folks that have to be somewhere get somewhere. If you kindly let the connectors exit, maybe everyone gets home to their families.

Precise Flight Attendant Language. Don't tell us "We'll be on the ground shortly." That opens a range of possibilities to the traveler, somewhere between smooth landing and firey disaster.

On the Concourse

Don't be an Airport Zombie. We've all bobbed with frustration behind them. The wall of humanity cruising Concourse C because they visited all of the Hudson News stands on Concourse B, they meander aimlessly in front of you while you are in a hurry to catch that last plane home. "Excuse me" does not resonate -- it fuels them to creep slower from the distraction. And there's a special place in hell for the people that decide that the middle of the concourse is a great place to stand in place, contemplating what condiment to smear on the giant pretzel.

To the Right, Except to Pass. Like any traffic way, if you want to take your time, stick to the far right-hand side of the flow (unless you are in one of those countries). Leave the middle open for motion. If you have to stand still, get to the side, out of the way. When on the stairs, people mover or escalator, get to the right -- the far right. Leave a path on the left in case someone needs to move fast.

Wait for Your Zone. As boarding time approaches, passengers clot access to the gate. Frequent flyers are asked to board first, not because they need more time in a plane, but because they know the drill. Get them in fast and seated. Meanwhile, everyone else with a boarding pass congeals around the gate area, spewing out into the concourse, serving as a barrier to those trying to enter the plane when their zone is called, as well as those moving from gate-to-gate. You have a seat reserved. Chill. As the gate attendant says, "Stay seated until your zone number is called."


In short, making the airline experience better is simple -- Passengers, be mindful of others. Limit the activities that violate the sensibilities or nostrils. Be kind to the gate agents, TSA officers and flight attendants that serve you in the process. Think about the fellow traveler, how they are seconds away from missing a plane to an important meeting, a dear friend's wedding, or they just want to get home to their dog and their own pillow. The air travel experience benefits if we all think about each other, and act with kindness and compassion for others.

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